(movie review written in 2001)
"Enemy At The Gates" did not do particularly strong business at the box office earlier this year - partially due to the film's mixed critical response and audiences who thought it looked like another "Saving Private Ryan". Although the film's opening battle sequence, with its shocking violence and cinematography, will likely draw comparisons to "Ryan", the main body of the film is something different completely.
Director Jean-Jacques Annaud's films have been only partially successful, in my opinion. 1995's IMAX feature "Wings of Courage" and 1997's "Seven Years In Tibet" were beautifully filmed, but also incredibly slow and completely uninteresting. The last picture of his that I've enjoyed was 1988's "The Bear". Thankfully, "Enemy at the Gates" is a mostly positive return for the director, who is lucky enough to be accompanied by a top-notch cast and with an eighty million dollar budget at his disposal.
In a matter of minutes after the movie opens, we are shown a lengthy battle sequence as the Russians are pitted against the Nazi army in a massive battle; it becomes obvious that the Russians are ill-equipped to fight back and soon enough, there are only a few remaining. One of the remaining is Vassily Zaitsev (Jude Law), a Russian sharpshooter who is impressive in battle. Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a fellow solider, notices Vassilly's skills and decides that he would be the perfect hero for the Russians; he soon prints up flyers to promote morale. Unfortunately, the Nazis get a hold of one of these flyers and send in one of their best snipers, Konig (Ed Harris) to deal with Vassily. The remainder of the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game as the two soliders hunt down one another.
Had it been simply a tense cat and mouse game between the two, the film would have been ultimately more successful than it is. For some reason, director Annaud felt the need to throw in a love interest, Tania (Rachel Weisz), a beautiful, but tough, female solider that Vassilly and Danilov fall for. Weisz is a fine actress as proved again here and I certainly think she does superb work in several scenes, but the story doesn't need romance and to lose that angle (as well as a handful of other unneeded bits) would have made for a tighter, more tense story.
All of this takes place in-between battle sequences that are staged extremely well and take full advantage of the film's budget. Scenes of war-damaged cities are remarkably done. Hollowed-out buildings populate the landscape and seem to extend for miles; explosions and gunfire suddenly come out of nowhere and level the area further. Although many certainly would expect violence in a war picture, "Enemy at the Gates" is very graphic and definitely "R" rated.
Several of the scenes between Law and Harris offer the most tension, though.A number of drawn-out sequences where the results are in question are thrilling; we don't hear the thoughts of the characters, but we see the planning going on in their eyes. The production is lucky to have both Law and Harris, extremely gifted actors who give it their all in their respective performances.
As is, "Gates" is a very good and occasionally great film - but it could have been an outstanding one had the film been able to tighten its focus upon the battle between these two characters in the middle of the larger war.
VIDEO: The film is presented on Blu-Ray in 2.35:1 (1080p/AVC) and the results are quite good. Sharpness and detail see noticeable improvement, as the finest details of the picture (facial hair, the texture of the buildings, etc) are often quite clearly visible. A few softer moments are spotted at times, but the majority of the film looked crisp and precise (even dark/smoky scenes are handled with ease by the presentation.) The image also boasted impressive depth in some scenes, as well.
A touch of edge enhancement was spotted in a couple of sequences and occasional specks and marks were spotted on the print used, but the transfer was otherwise free of concerns. The film's color palette is full of dark, gritty colors that are accurately rendered by the Blu-Ray presentation. Although the DVD presentation was quite good, the Blu-Ray triumphs in a few regards, offering a smoother, richer, more precise image.
SOUND: The film is presented on Blu-Ray in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Although "Gates" sound supervisors Eddy Joseph ("Angela's Ashes") and Rick Kline ("u-571") have done an excellent job with the film's sound experience, it does not manage to provide the same kind of stunning sound design that "Ryan" (or director Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line", for that matter) offered. Still, the sound experience offered by the film often does come close to those two pictures, as proved in the opening scenes, where explosions and gunfire are heard all around the listening space - accompanied by James Horner's stellar score.
Soon after, the film's audio calms down a bit, but still flares up fairly often as planes fly overhead and explosions suddenly dot the landscape as battles begin anew. Deep, solid low bass is provided during the most intense scenes of battle, especially during the final sequences. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is mildly more immersive, with subtle details sounding more precise and transparent.
Audio quality was excellent throughout the picture as the score came through crisply and clearly and dialogue sounded clean and natural, as well. While the film's soundtrack isn't going to surpass some other titles in the genre as a sound demo, the 5.1 presentation is still quite good in most regards.
EXTRAS: Deleted Scenes: Nine deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, with no additional commentary provided to discuss reasons why the scenes were cut. Although the majority of these scenes seemed unncessary - going over plot points that were already gone over - a couple of them provided some decent moments from the actors and could maybe have stayed while some of the scenes in the final film would have ended up in this section instead.
Inside "Enemy at the Gates": Paramount has been providing a group of supplemental interviews cut together for many of their recent DVD releases. Where these reviews were originally very promotional in nature, they have gotten more and more interesting as new releases come from the studio. "Inside Enemy" is certainly one of the better editions of these documentaries, as interviews from Annaud and cast go in-detail (or about as detailed as you can get in 15 minutes or so) about the heavy preparations and research that went into the picture. Eventually, some promotional story elements enter in, but overall I thought this was an informative piece.
Through The Crosshairs: This is a more traditional "making-of" documentary that lasts about 19 minutes. There are interesting pieces as we find out a bit about how the destroyed cities were built. Unfortunately, in-between these interesting sequences are some promotional tidbits - scenes from the movie with narration, etc.
Theatrical Trailer: The theatrical trailer (HD).
Final Thoughts: Although the film could have been tighter, "Enemy at the Gates" still stands as a mostly well-acted war drama from director Jean-Jacques Annaud. The Blu-Ray provides a noticeable upgrade in regards to audio/video quality and carries over the same extras as the DVD.
The Film B