Its estimated budget of $85 million makes "Enemy at the Gates" the most expensive movie ever shot in Europe. It's not cheap, after all, to transform three locations in modern-day Germany into the Stalingrad of 1942, thereby providing a realistic setting for the (supposedly) true story of a stalking duel between the top snipers of the warring German and Russian armies.
Yet that's what director/producer Jean-Jacques Annaud ("The Name of the Rose," "Seven Years in Tibet") has chosen to do. From a visual standpoint, his money was well spent. Annaud's Stalingrad -- a jewel left horribly scratched by the rivalry of Hitler and Stalin -- is a breathtaking tableau of destruction that seems to extend for miles. Not one of its decimated buildings or piles of rubble looks to have been used twice. In comparison, the burned Atlanta of "Gone With the Wind" could be an overhead shot of a teen-ager's bedroom.
Into this shell-shocked city comes Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), a crack shot whose ability to pick off Nazi soldiers makes him a folk hero to the war-fatigued Russian people. He even receives his own fan mail. Encouraging him to answer is Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a Soviet political officer who's eager to feed the Vassili myth in newspaper stories that mark the hero's kills with illustrations of crossed-out helmets.
In response, the Nazis send in their own marksman, the coldly efficient Major Konig (Ed Harris). The two sharpshooters pursue each other through the crumbling city, engaging in a daily game of hide-and-seek with lethal weapons. Tension of another sort is brewing between Vassili and Danilov, both of whom have eyes for a female soldier named Tania (Rachel Weisz). War is hell, but a major motion picture without a romantic plotline is just senseless.
The film is already drawing fire for its alleged historical inaccuracies; the duel between Zaitsev and Konig, experts complain, never actually happened. It's hard to say which is more quaint: The idea that cinema should conform to reality or the zeal with which "Enemy" instead models itself on every other war movie ever made. Much of its first act is devoted to an extended battle sequence that's a straight cop from Saving Private Ryan. Subsequent scenes are more of the Smilin' Jack school, warmly embracing its hoariest clichés. Late-show addicts will recognize the ill-timed autobiographical monologues, as well as the careful bribing of turncoat informants who could just as easily be tortured into revealing what they know. And get ready to mark the one-millionth appearance of the line "It's a trap!" in an action picture.
Still, "Enemy" works more often than not. Its suspense, though borrowed, remains genuine, and there isn't a bad performance in the film. Harris' cobalt intensity, however, is slightly diminished by the script's insistence on dragging him out at every opportunity. His Konig would be more fearsome had co-writers Annaud and Alain Godard followed the horror-movie model and kept their monster largely in the shadows. There's just enough of Bob Hoskins, who gets to spout the party doggerel of Nikita Khrushchev in a surprisingly believable cameo.
Such moments allow Annaud and Godard to take their own potshots at the doomed Soviet empire, which is depicted as inherently corrupt and a mere lesser evil to the Nazis' brutality. (Children who watch this film in 2050 may wonder if there were any actual good guys in the Big One.) But it's best not to dwell on "Enemy's" stabs at meaning and instead enjoy the epic sweep that keeps it consistently watchable. To paraphrase Orson Welles, it's the biggest set of toy soldiers a boy ever had.