If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, what better conveys that concept than the relationship between a sniper and his prey? Nowhere is there more sense of direction, more precision, more focus, more of a beginning and an end. It is, perhaps, the most simple journey imaginable.
Maybe that's why it's so fascinating, especially when conveyed in cinematic form, whether it covers an entire film (Day of the Jackal) or one element (Barry's Pepper's haunting Private Jackson in Saving Private Ryan). There is, without question, a slightly morbid fascination with man as hunter and hunted. It's like chess with bullets.
And that is at the heart of the story behind another World War II epic, director Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy at the Gates, which, despite some circuitous moments, eventually finds its mark. Annaud, who has muddied epic waters before in such works as his previous film, Seven Years in Tibet (1992), scatter-shoots this fact-based story with romance and ruminations, speeches and subplots. When he's focused on the hunt, and lets his combatants do their thing, he scores a hit.
In Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) and his counterpart, Nazi marksman Major Konig (Ed Harris), Annaud paints two very distinct enemies -- each of whom has his own reasons for being at the pivotal Battle of Stalingrad at the height of Hitler's doomed Russian offensive. They both have a story to tell, and they each harbor a secret that explains their respective mind-sets. Zaitsev is a willing soldier but a hesitant hero, which the Russian army (led by future premier Nikita Khruschev as played with menace by Bob Hoskins) desperately needs. Zaitsev's new-found friend, propagandist Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), has convinced Khruschev that encouraging the troops instead of killing them in retreat might just boost morale. (Russia's treatment of its own soldiers is one of the great history lessons of the film.) So goes Zaitsev, the film implies, so goes Stalingrad.
But war, or Hollywood, isn't as simple as a straight line. First, Zaitsev is distracted by a fellow markswoman in Tania (Rachel Weisz), and unwittingly finds himself in a battle with Danilov for her affections. And then there's the villainous Konig, who tempers his arrogance with a serenity and, well, focus -- the kind needed to put personal baggage aside and stay on target. The question becomes whether Zaitsev -- who fears he's met his match -- can do the same.
Law, not unlike his director, has trouble with focus in portraying one of the most sensitive killers in recent memory. But Law has his own secret weapon: drop-dead good looks. You can smear him with mud and cover him in heavy combat clothing, and he's still Jude Law. A mass of jaw lines and cheekbones along with bold, piercing eyes, Law often gets by simply with expressions. He seems most at peace when hunting or discussing his prey, or romancing his comrade in arms, Tania. "I could make him think I'm here, while I'm actually over there, except he's expecting a distraction, so I won't move at all," he explains at one point. The love scene between Zaitsev and Tania, quietly set amid a cavernous barracks with comrades snoozing or going out for a smoke, is one of the most subtly erotic movie scenes you'll find.
At least as an actor, he's no match for Harris, whose own piercing blue eyes were but one of many reasons he (justifiably) received an Oscar nomination for last year's Pollock. When Zaitsev is thought to have died in battle, he deadpans, "He isn't dead ... because I haven't killed him yet." But Harris also has probably seen every evil Nazi on the silver screen, and learned his lessons well by saving the manifestation of his evil for just the right moment. And when it comes, it's as chilling as his demeanor.
Elsewhere, it's a mixed bag. Fiennes stutters and emotes his way through one conflict after another (his friend, his object of desire, his duty, yada-yada-yada). Weisz has her moments as woman only slightly torn between two lovers but more concerned about her role in a war she must help win.
The real star of the film could easily be director of photography Robert Fraisse, who coats Stalingrad in grays and charcoals and browns and yet ends up with a look of somber beauty. Except for one ridiculous slow-mo view of Zaitsev finishing off his first sniper assault -- and Ryan-esque overabundance of graphic "kill" shots -- Annaud's scenes are almost as accurate as his soldiers of war. And if his approach seems a little overwrought at times, he can be forgiven. When it comes time for the final showdown, Annaud delivers the goods with a nice twist.
After all, sometimes lesser beings need a shotgun to make their point. It just leaves more of a mess.