Enemy At The Gates

Enemy At The Gates (2001)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Jude Law, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz, Bob Hoskins
Extras: Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Theatrical Trailer

It seems inevitable that director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s large-scale WWII drama would be compared to "Saving Private Ryan." On the surface, "Enemy at the Gates" appears to mimic its predecessor yet, given a closer look, the latter film achieves a very compelling style that stands on its own merits. Though not particularly successful in theaters, Paramount Home Video brings "Enemy at the Gates" to DVD in regal fashion, offering viewers an opportunity to experience this very engrossing film that centers upon an intimate struggle between two opposing soldiers juxtaposed by the large-scale theater of war around them.

The film opens with a visceral battle sequence set in 1942 Stalingrad where terrified Russian soldiers are forced to advance against the well-organized Nazi army in an open field conflict. As half the soldiers are killed, the others retreat only to be shot as cowards and traitors by Soviet officers. In the aftermath, only two men appear to have survived – a skilled marksman, Vassili (Jude Law) and political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes). Hiding themselves among the strewn bodies, Vassili eliminates five German officers and becomes the inspiration for Danilov’s impending propaganda machine that will paint the marksman as a much-needed national hero.

Soviet defense leader Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), recognizing how faltering morale could lead to the doom of the Soviet resistance, is impressed by further Danilov-generated war news propaganda sheets that track the growing number of German officers taken down by Vassili’s pin-point accuracy. Unfortunately, the German effort also learns of Vassili and, faced with eroding morale of its own, dispatches their best sniper, the weathered professional Konig (Ed Harris) to eliminate the young hero. What ensues is a captivating cat-and-mouse standoff between the two sharpshooters, with national pride and ultimate triumph hanging in the balance.

"Enemy at the Gates" boasted an $80 million budget which produced not only the impressive land and air battle sequences but also full scale sets of a devastated Stalingrad that are incredible to behold. Be prepared for graphic violence and bloodshed that, though not as disturbing as that seen in "Saving Private Ryan," can be equally unsettling nonetheless. Stated as being based upon a true story, the realism of sequences, situations, and characters in this film ekes of authenticity – director Annaud cited as a WWII expert himself.

But what works best in this picture is how the large-as-life-itself surroundings recede to the background, focusing the audience upon the steely-eyed cunning and resolve of the two snipers pitted against one another. In many of their sequences, there is little dialog from Law or Harris, allowing the camera, instead, to relay their inner thoughts and plans through dramatic close-ups. It’s an often "pure cinema" approach that works well in this context. What doesn’t work, however, is the war-torn romantic sub-plot that introduces Tania (Rachel Weisz) as love interest between both Vassili and Danilov. This element of the story seems to only slow down the more imminent developments of the impending face-off between the two principals. But, it’s a mis-step that can be forgiven as, though a bit distracting to the otherwise natural flow of the story and mounting suspense, the total unfolding of events effectively establishes highly believable characters in the all-too-realistic setting.

Paramount Home Video presents "Enemy at the Gates" in a stunning transfer that is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, preserving the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The source material is virtually flawless – as one might expect of a recent release – and provides a DVD image that’s free of defects and faithfully recreates a film-like appearance. Though the film’s color is intentionally muted and drab, it delivers natural looking flesh tones. The blacks are deep, contrast is accurate, and the detail impressive even amidst many dark and smoky sequences. There are no signs of artifacting or edge enhancement anywhere in the presentation.

The <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack is equally impressive and aggressive. Though it might have taken a lesson or two from "Saving Private Ryan," the mix is quite active, delivering plenty of surround effects and deep low-end rumbling. And while there is plenty of audio action enveloping you during the battle sequences, the dialog is never obscured. Also worth noting is James Horner’s exceptional score which properly underscores the on-screen action and adds an audible coloring that enhances the listening experience. There is also a French 5.1 soundtrack included on the disc.

Paramount delivers a nice array of extras on this disc, beginning with two featurettes – "Inside ‘Enemy at the Gates’" and "Through the Crosshairs." Each running about 15 to 20 minutes, these featurettes take viewers behind the scenes of the production, which are quite informative but still feel rather promotional in essence. There are nine deleted scenes included, presented in non-<$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, that sadly are not complimented with any sort of commentary that explains why they were omitted from the final cut. Finally, you’ll find the original theatrical trailer presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital.

Though originally hampered by mixed reviews during its theatrical release, "Enemy at the Gates" presents itself as a different sort of war epic, one told from a more intimate point of view. Through its brooding atmosphere, jarring battle sequences, and superb acting, this is a film definitely worth experiencing in a DVD presentation that largely embodies the level of quality we’ve come to expect.