'Enemy at the Gates' is a well-made, finely acted World War II movie with a good reputation and strong following, but like a Siberian winter, it left me cold, cold, cold. After its stunningly gruesome lambs-to-the-slaughter opening (reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's take on the D-Day invasion in 'Saving Private Ryan'), Jean-Jacques Annaud's chronicle of the Nazi attack on Stalingrad only captivated me periodically. The film's deliberate pacing often slows the action to a snail's pace, and aside from one hot sex scene, which surprisingly transpires between two fully clothed participants, little emotion filters into the story. Though massive scope is hardly a war film prerequisite, the focus of 'Enemy at the Gates' is so narrow, its broader concepts often get lost, diluting its impact.
Based on a true story, the movie follows the exploits of Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), a young Russian soldier with pinpoint sharpshooting skills who becomes a legendary sniper. As the weary Soviet army tries to beat back encroaching German invaders from capturing Stalingrad and gaining unfettered access to Asia's oil fields in the autumn of 1942, Vassili becomes a local hero and poster child for the resistance, thanks to the efforts of Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a propagandist extraordinaire who ceaselessly promotes Vassili's hits, and dubs him the savior of the Soviet cause. Almost instantly, morale perks up, and Commissar Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), who's in charge of defending Stalingrad, takes notice. So do the enraged Nazis, who dispatch their best sniper, Major Konig (Ed Harris), to take out Vassili and, in turn, demoralize the revitalized Russians. What follows is a drawn-out game of cat-and-mouse, with an awkward love triangle between Vassili, Danilov, and a gutsy female soldier (Rachel Weisz) thrown in for good measure.
History tells us the Battle of Stalingrad was perhaps the pivotal confrontation of the war. (It was definitely the bloodiest, with close to two million casualties.) Many elements determined the victor, but 'Enemy at the Gates' makes it seem as if the entire affair – even the outcome of World War II itself – hinges on whether Konig kills Vassili. Hanging such an unbelievable mantle on the film diminishes its weight and takes us out of the story, as does the interminable gamesmanship between the two men, which drags on far longer than it needs to. In addition, the stilted script understandably steers our sympathies toward the struggling Soviets, but it feels slightly odd rooting for one totalitarian regime to crush another, especially with the knowledge that Stalin's reign would turn out to be as oppressive and cruel as Hitler's. Of course, 'Enemy at the Gates' tries to have it both ways, with an eleventh hour condemnation of Communist doctrine, but the rebuke seems artificial and tacked on.
And what is it with the accents in this film? All the Russians speak with a British accent, and all the Germans sound American. Call me a purist, but this really bugged me. I mean, how hard could it be to hire a dialect coach so the characters could sound authentic? If Sean Connery and Sam Neill can tackle Russian accents, however briefly, in 'The Hunt for Red October,' then surely Law, Fiennes, and Weisz are capable of doing the same thing. All are accomplished actors, and they make 'Enemy at the Gates' better than it otherwise might have been, but it's jarring to listen to a man like Fiennes with such strong English inflections hand out Communist propaganda. At times, I had to remind myself I was watching the Battle of Stalingrad and not the London Blitz.
'Enemy at the Gates' tells an important story that hasn't been tackled by other films in the flooded World War II genre, but its myriad missteps sap its individuality. Despite its fine production values, good performances, and ambitious battle scenes, I could never quite buy into the action on screen. Annaud's film is certainly better than many in its class, but it lacks enough distinctive qualities to make it truly memorable.
'Enemy at the Gates' tries to recreate the lush, colorful look of the 1940s, but dreary exteriors shrouded in the haze of gunpowder and laden with mud and concrete dust keep the palette dull. As a result, this 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer doesn't scale the heights we expect. It's still a good-looking effort that accurately reflects the director's vision, but rarely achieves the crystalline levels the best epic transfers offer. The source print is blemish-free, and though the picture doesn't pop off the screen, there's a nice vibrancy that's especially evident in close-ups. Fine facial details, such as stubble and pores, are well defined, and fleshtones remain stable and natural throughout the course of the film.
Black levels enjoy appropriate depth and richness, and though contrast can be a bit weak, shadow delineation is decent and background details are discernible enough. Hues aren't as vivid as I would have liked for a period piece, but Communist reds are nicely saturated and add some interest to the otherwise bland visuals. A faint coating of film grain adds texture, but can't perk up the rather flat look of this standard effort.
War movies demand powerful, active audio tracks, and though the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix on this Blu-ray gets the job done, the sound quality only occasionally reaches its potential. There's some good surround activity and directionality, but gunfire lacks the piercing crispness that makes us jump and cringe during battle sequences. Although bass frequencies are rather anemic at first, they perk up as the film progresses, but the bombing and shelling never rock the room like they should. Dialogue is well integrated into the track's fabric, with even soft-spoken lines coming across clearly, and James Horner's score enjoys solid presence and fidelity.
Like the video, this track is good enough to please average viewers, but home theater enthusiasts will likely crave more than what Paramount offers here.
A few run-of-the-mill supplements add a bit of heft to the disc, but this is hardly a weighty package.
'Enemy at the Gates' is a good enough war film to outclass more pedestrian efforts, but it can't quite claw its way into the genre's upper echelon. In fits and starts it grabs our attention, but has trouble sustaining it, and limps to a rather weak conclusion. Paramount's Blu-ray presentation is also adequate, with acceptable video and audio transfers, and a few decent supplements. Worth a look for WWII aficionados and fans of the actors.
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