First, and foremost, because of its screenplay. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet, The Bear) and partner Alain Godard take a horrific true tale and sap it of its energy, irony, and tension. It starts off impressively enough: Russian soliders are immediately gunned down as they arrive in Stalingrad -- if not by the enemy, then by their own officers, who kill the boys when they retreat in terror. Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law) becomes an instant hero when he plays dead, and in sniper fashion, shoots a number of unsuspecting Nazis.
That's well-paced, edge-of-your-seat stuff, primarily because we haven't been introduced to Vassily, and don't yet know of his talents. But we soon learn, as does Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a witness to Vassily's daring actions, who quickly makes him a symbol of Russian pride and propaganda.
The dialogue between Danilov and Vassily rapidly becomes stilted, chest-thumping, men-in-war drivel, aiming for the proud heart of the viewer and ending up shooting itself in the foot. Unfortunately, this carries over into much of the film, and denies some solid actors even half a chance.
That illuminates the second problem: the acting. It's tough to tell where the bad dialogue ends, and the overdone performances begin. Law provides a glimmer of hope, playing Vassily as humble and understated (though with nary a shade of horror). Fiennes is ridiculous as Danilov, giving us too much scowling and way too much feigned pride. And Ed Harris, as the Nazi sniper Koenig, seems to be just going through the motions of an amazingly underwritten part. Most laughable, however, is Bob Hoskins as Khrushchev, bellowing lines like "You've lost half your men!? Well, lose the other half!" Why on Earth are a bunch of Russians speaking with subdued British accents?
The final problem in this analysis: Annaud takes no advantage of the story. We see no parallels, no dichotomy, no irony between Vassily and Koenig. Enemy at the Gates would have gained greatly from some link between the two men, something to make the viewer have to think. Instead, the "relationship" flounders in uncharted territory, as Annaud drags us through scenes that feel just like the ones before. There's even a misplaced romantic triangle somewhere in there (leading, by the way, to a love scene that's one of the few emotional and honest parts of the film).
For its 2:10 running time, Enemy at the Gates sounds stuffed to the gills and looks like an epic, but it ultimately feels empty. You'll be thinking of Saving Private Ryan during this -- and wishing you'd stayed home and watched that on DVD instead.
If however you find yourself faced with the Enemy at the Gates DVD, you'll find a number of extras, including a handful of deleted scenes that provide a little more backstory and add to the irony of the last act. Two making-of shorts are throwaways, but the biggest complaint with this disc is an awful sound design. In order to appeal to speaker enthusiasts, every explosion on this DVD is boosted to about twice the volume it ought to be at. I found myself constantly turning the volume down when the walls started shaking, only to turn it back up 30 seconds later because I couldn't hear the dialogue. Truly annoying. Stalin would have had someone shot.
Enemy on the wall.
Run time: 131 mins
In Theaters: Friday 16th March 2001
Box Office USA: $50.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $97M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Swanford Films, Paramount Pictures, Mandalay Pictures, KC Medien, Reperage, DOS, Little Bird, MP Film Management
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 54%
Fresh: 74 Rotten: 63
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Producer: Jean-Jacques Annaud, John D. Schofield
Starring: Jude Law as Vassili Zaitsev, Rachel Weisz as Tania Chernova, Ed Harris as Major König, Joseph Fiennes as Commisar Danilov, Bob Hoskins as Nikita Khrushchev, Ron Perlman as Koulikov, Eva Mattes as Mother Filipov, Gabriel Thomson as Sacha Filipov, Matthias Habich as General Paulus, Alexander Schwan as Young Vassili Zaitsev, Lenn Kudrjawizki as Comrade in Train, Gennadi Vengerov as Russian NCO, Dan van Husen as Political Officer
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