I’ve never been a big fan of war movies. Somehow, seeing John Wayne or Kirk Douglas hunkering down in a muddy bunker, smoking Camels and reminiscing about the girls back home never held any appeal to me. I don’t necessarily hate the genre, but for every Schindler’s List, there’s an In Love and War, for each Dr. Strangelove, a Rambo III. Therefore, I was a bit reluctant to see Enemy at the Gates, but, with Jude Law and Joseph Fiennes as leads, I figured it would at least be nice to look at.
It turns out, as war movies go, this one isn’t all that bad. It borrows heavily from other films, but at least it steals from the good ones: the opening battle is almost identical to that of Saving Private Ryan; the closing shots mimic Gone With the Wind. The story is simple: a nearly defeated Russian army must protect Stalingrad, the last stronghold in Russia. To boost the morale of the troops, an idealistic journalist (Fiennes) creates a media hero out of sharpshooter Vasily Zaitsev (Law), an Army of One who has single-handedly kept the Germans at bay. The Nazis bring in their own sharpshooter (Ed Harris), and a laborious game of cat-and-mouse ensues. There’s also a tepid and predictable love triangle involving the two hunky Russians and a local girl (Rachel Weisz), but there’s more chemistry between Fiennes and Law than between either of them and Weisz.
Though beautifully shot by director Jean-Jacques Annaud, watching Enemy at the Gates is, at times, a bit like watching a chess game. Not a fast and furious match of Washington Square speed-chess; more like a game between two retirees playing in the recreation room of their nursing home. Vasily’s mantra is “I am a stone,” and he proves it by sitting for hours at a time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to shoot. While this is probably an accurate depiction of this particular activity, it doesn’t always make for exciting film footage.
Thankfully, there are Jude and Joseph. With his perfectly mussed hair and cap permanently askew, Jude looks like a model for a new Banana Republic “Red Army” campaign, while Joseph slowly develops a heroin-chic look that only makes him sexier as he fights personal – and social – demons. So, when you tire of pondering why all the Russians have English accents and the Nazi sharpshooter sounds distinctly American, you can always concentrate on Joseph & Jude.