World War II boomed back into style with "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line," and "Enemy at the Gates" wants to keep the same Hollywood bazookas firing away. But this box-office battle may be harder to win.
The ferocious combat waged at Stalingrad in 1942-43 is the movie's overall subject. To make this cataclysmic event seem more urgent and immediate, screenwriters Alain Godard and Jean-Jacques Annaud have personalized it by focusing on a private rivalry that raged within the conflict as a whole. The movie traces this antagonism as it flares up between a Soviet sniper (Jude Law) and his Nazi counterpart (Ed Harris) while they hone their skills, stalk their victims, and ultimately turn their sights on each other.
With its combination of historical conflict and man-to-man violence, "Enemy at the Gates" sounds like a battle plan for excitement. The impressive cast, which also includes Joseph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, points in this direction too.
But not much of the 133-minute running time passes before the drama grows alarmingly shallow. Blame goes partly to director Annaud, who seems more interested in epic visual sweep than human emotion. The performances don't help, either. Bob Hoskins is terrific in his brief bit as future Soviet premier Nikita Kruschchev, but usually interesting troupers like Harris and Law just go through the motions.
Add a megadose of bombastic James Horner music and a perfunctory love-affair subplot - is it illegal to release a studio picture without one of these tacked on? - and you have a movie that's likely to be its own worst enemy once audiences come into its cross hairs.
Rated R; contains a great deal of war-movie violence and brief sex.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor