Love and war
Enemy at the Gates
Throwing a bad romantic sub-plot into a war movie is like chucking a dozen sugar cookies into a beef stew. Enemy at the Gates, a film that begins brilliantly and is peppered with many fascinating moments, is ultimately indigestible due to some foul, sorely out-of-place ingredients.
A harrowing battle sequence begins the movie, with Russian soldiers being viciously picked-off on transfer boats as they attempt arrival for the Battle of Stalingrad. The violent sequence brings to mind the D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan, as director Jean-Jacques Annaud, like Spielberg, creates a true sense of dread by depicting soldiers with nowhere to hide being slaughtered before they can even begin to fight.
With this scene, Annaud sets the stage for what looks to be an epic depiction of Stalingrad and the horrible plight of Russian soldiers during World War II—for example, men retreating from no-win situations shot down for cowardice by their own commanders before they can reach safety.
There’s room in cinema history for a depiction of WWII horrors as seen through the eyes of the Russians, and for a short instance, that looks to be the story Enemy at the Gates will tell. Regrettably, the film narrows its scope to a battle between two men instead of two armies, and it introduces a love triangle that is wholly uninteresting.
When the opening battle dies down, a political officer (Joseph Fiennes) is one of the few Russian survivors hiding under dead bodies. Another Russian, played by Jude Law, displays unbelievable marksmanship by single-handedly killing a group of Nazi officers with one rifle, a feat Fiennes witnesses. Fiennes decides to make Law’s heroism the core of a propaganda campaign to give his country a hero.
From this point on, Enemy at the Gates becomes some sort of strange depiction of the rigors of wartime celebrity. Law’s picture ends up in a lot of newspapers; Nazi intelligence gets a beat on him, and they send out their own master marksman (Ed Harris) to pick him off. This leads to some mildly effective cat-and-mouse moments as the two perch themselves in battle areas and have some long, quiet standoffs.
Law is a gifted actor (loved him in Gattaca and The Talented Mr. Ripley), and he’s good here, even as his character is required to slog through a stupid soap opera involving Fiennes and a female Russian soldier (Rachel Weisz). I’m not saying a war film can’t include loving moments between people, but a damn love triangle taking up too much running time gets irritating. What’s more, the Fiennes character is rendered ludicrous by his jealousies, betraying Law in some instances, because he’s not getting the girl. Talk about trite.
The love affair does provide for a shocking sex scene when Law and Weisz fornicate in a Russian barrack, pausing for the occasional officer who walks by their stomping ground. If you’re looking for a nasty depiction of soldiers sneaking sex acts while comrades snore away next to them, look no further.
Credit Law and Harris for creating engaging characters. Harris is especially sinister in his small role, making his soldier believable in his relentless quest to destroy the enemy’s hero. Bob Hoskins is a bit much in a scenery-chewing turn as Nikita Khrushchev. He’s saddled with big bucked-teeth and looks like one ugly rabbit. Ron Perlman, also sporting stunt teeth (his are shiny metal), does an amusing walk-through as a sniper assistant to Law, but his character proves worthless.
The Law-Harris battle, although not a delivery on the promise of the film’s opening sequence, could’ve sufficed and provided for an above-average thriller. Enemy at the Gates dooms itself with its poorly written romance. It would’ve benefited from an extensive re-edit, losing the Fiennes and Weisz characters.