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Beyond Enemy Lines

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*Enemy at the Gates (R)
Paramount

A World War II film that does not feature American soldiers is a rarity, and this one succeeds at bucking any number of Hollywood war-movie stereotypes. It focuses on the battle over Stalingrad, a ruined city on the Volga where the tattered Russian army's last stand against Hitler's army is a gritty bloodbath fought against a crumbling backdrop of epic ruin.

Enemy at the Gates, like much of the rest of director Jean-Jacques Annaud's films (Seven Years in Tibet), establishes a mythic context and tells a story of surprising heroism that is both intimate and historic. By choosing Vassili Zaitsev, a shepherd turned sharpshooter who ultimately became a Soviet hero, as its subject, Annaud is able to at once fascinate us with the spectacle of history we haven't seen before and draw us into the psychic conflicts of a boy who must suddenly become a man.

Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley) hits all the right notes as Zaitsev, a recruit who arrives in Stalingrad by train and finds himself under fire in a breathtaking crossing of the Volga in one of the film's spectacular early scenes. Hiding among a pile of dead bodies, Zaitsev borrows a rifle from an equally terrified comrade, Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), and carefully picks off five high-ranking German officers. Danilov, a military propagandist who reports directly to commandant Nikita Kruschev (played by a barely recognizable Bob Hoskins), conspires to rally the demoralized Soviet troops by turning Zaitsev into a folk hero, plastering his photograph across newspapers and flyers, heralding his uncommon bravery and ability with a rifle.

Alarmed at Zaitsev's growing popularity and his accuracy and elusiveness as a sniper, the Germans bring in their own secret weapon, Major Konig (Ed Harris), and the two square off. Meanwhile, both Vassili and Danilov become entranced with Tania (Rachel Weisz), a committed soldier who prefers being in the trenches with Zaitsev over an office job with the higher-ranking Danilov.

The stake out between Konig and Zaitsev becomes the film's steely focus, and Annaud succeeds at creating genuine suspense and tension as the snipers stalk one another among burned-out department stores, factories and train stations. Harris performs with a pointed zen-like intelligence, quietly befriending a nave Russian boy (Gabriel Marshall-Thomson) and never flinching as he carries out the singular purpose of hunting down his prey. Law depicts Zaitsev as an innocent who is lucky in war and love -- a farm boy out of his element but naturally heroic. His performance confirms his place as one of the most interesting actors of his generation currently appearing in films.

Some missteps in the dialogue may cause a snicker or two, but overall the drama of the film's central stories and the superb staging and filming overcome that handicap. One wordless scene in particular, where Tania and Vassili make love silently while they are wedged among a row of dirty, snoring soldiers, speaks volumes about Annaud's eloquence with the camera.

Enemy at the Gates snags the audience's interest at the beginning with large battle scenes, and heightens that interest throughout as the director continually narrows his focus. Superb acting by Law and Harris raises the film above its genre to a level of heightened theatricality as two antagonists, on an equal playing field, fight to a startling finish.

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