Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Support City Paper!
It’s Stalingrad in 1942, and the digitally generated butchery is bloodier and more convincing than Gladiator’s. Director Jean-Jacques (Quest for Fire) Annaud sets out to prove he’s a tough-minded realist with his depiction of Nazi ruthlessness and Soviet barbarism: When new Russian recruits arrive at the ruined city, they’re immediately strafed and bombed by German planes, and the troops who panic and retreat are shot by their own officers. Having established this brutally naturalistic context, however, Annaud quickly goes for the formulaic, stuffing the tale of Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) into not one but two old-Hollywood genres: The peasant marksman’s rivalry with aristocratic German shooter Konig (Ed Harris) is treated as an Old West duel, and the barely literate Vassili’s relationship with college-educated riflewoman Tania (Rachel Weisz) and ambitious political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) becomes a classic love-triangle melodrama. Vassili Zaitsev was a real person, and his one-on-one battle with Konig is part of Stalingrad lore, although not all historians accept that it actually happened. In Enemy at the Gates’ account, the sniper’s legend is created by Danilov, a conniving coward who turns on Vassili when he realizes that Tania loves the noble shooter and not him. (Both Tania and Danilov are depicted as Jewish, and the characterization of the latter has a whiff of anti-Semitism to it.) Annaud has said he was drawn to this material because of the contrast between the widescreen war and the telescopic-sight struggle between the two snipers, but it’s when he turns to close-ups that he gets in trouble. Although he’s devised many vivid (and usually wordless) sequences, Annaud undermines the movie’s believability with overemphatic flashbacks, hackneyed dialogue (written by the director and longtime collaborator Alain Godard), and the sub-Prokofiev bombast of Titanic composer James Horner’s score. The pseudo-Soviet constructivist end credits are neat, though. —Mark Jenkins