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Jude Law
Joseph Fiennes
Rachel Weisz
Bob Hoskins
Ed Harris
Gabriel Thomson
Ron Perlman
Eva Mattes
Matthias Habich

Jean-Jacques Annaud




Time: 131 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: History/War/Drama/Romance

An unflinching and bloody look at one of the most brutal battle sites of World War II. The loss of life, both civilian and military, at Stalingrad is mind-boggling. Much like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the first 20-30 minutes of this film is sickening to watch, causing one to flinch at the impact of every bullet. What's scary is this sequence probably doesn't begin to capture the sheer horror of the carnage that occured. Jude Law plays one of the fresh recruits, who were basically sent in to be slaughtered. If the Russian soldiers didn't move forward into the German line of fire – in a hopeless attempt to force their retreat – they were shot for desertion by their own officers. Not a pretty picture. A ray of hope emerges from this city of death in the form of Vassily Zaitsev (Law), a common mountain boy with a very useful wartime skill. His talent to hit targets from miles away makes him not only invaluable, but a hero as well. At least that's how the government sells his involvement and how the war becomes deadly personal for Vassily. Seeing his comrades mowed down is horrifying for him, but when the Germans send someone to permanently silence his highly accurate gun, Vassily's own mortality becomes a very real thing.

By saving the life of Commisar Danilov (Fiennes), a member of the military public relations machine, Vassily's skill as a sniper is brought to the attention of Nikita Khrushchev (Hoskins), who takes him out of the regular forces. As a member of the elite sniper squad, Vassily begins to make a name for himself on both sides of the battleground. His exploits – he only kills officers and many of them – become heroic fodder for the Russian people thanks to the prolific prose of Danilov's pen. Vassily never asked to be a hero, but the people need a reason to continue fighting and he gives them hope, a rare commodity. He also strikes fear in the German command, something equally unusual. His bullets have taken out more men than they can afford, so they call in a specialist of their own. Major Konig (Harris) is intelligent, ruthless and deadly accurate with his rifle. His duty is to end Vassily's reign of terror once and for all, by any means necessary. His presence takes an immediate toll on the ranks of the squad, sparking a dangerous game of cat and mouse only one of them will walk away from. For Vassily, the threat is not only to his own life, but to those he's come to love as well, most especially Tania (Weisz).

"All these men here know they're going to die. So, each night when they make it back, it's a bonus. So, every cup of tea, every cigarette is like a little celebration."

In an effort to keep her safe and close to him, Danilov gets Tania a job in the communications office. He claims her knowledge of German is vital to the war effort and she's more useful there instead of risking her life with a rifle. His true motives are far less noble. He sees the chemistry between her and Vassily and he's not about to lose such a lovely girl to a farm boy, no matter how good he is with a gun. However, ultimately, the choice isn't his. Tania feels useless working in the office while her friends are putting their lives in danger for the cause. She is soon back out wandering through the rubble, looking for Germans and falling for Vassily's honest charms. He now has unseen trouble on two fronts, able to rely only on himself and the love of Tania. Vassily begs Danilov to stop writing about him. He's no hero and wants to come out of this hell hole in one piece. Danilov refuses. He loves and respects Vassily, but his lust for Tania and belief in the cause harden his heart against Vassily's plight. The stage is set for the final show down with Konig, who despite orders to the contrary, refuses to leave until he achieves success. Whomever makes the first wrong move will breath no more.

Though Vassily is made out to be a hero, Law plays him like a normal everyday guy, filled with fear, just doing what he can to help win the war. Law puts in another fantastic performance, making you feel in his humanity the loss of millions of other soldiers just like him. He's such an electric actor, you can't take your eyes off of him. Fiennes is equally unforgettable, but for different reasons. You want to hate Danilov for his betrayal of Vassily and Tania, yet there's something in Fiennes' performance that catches at the heart. He's a subtle actor that makes his character's bad behavior seem almost forgivable. Of course, if there was no love triangle, that wouldn't have been a problem. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Rachel Weisz, I just think her presence distracted from the main story. Granted, the film would have been hard to sit through without a few softer breaks and the love angle allows for Danilov to be more than just a public relations shill; however, it still didn't work for me. I know women picked up arms in many battles during the war, but Weisz isn't believable as a soldier. She's merely there to give Vassily something to live for and Danilov something to die for. War movies are about men killing men. Love stories do not belong.

That being said, Annaud is a masterful visual stylist, creating a gripping mano e mano struggle in the midst of a much larger battle of good vs. evil. The story is simple, yet extremely compelling, partly because it's true, but mostly because it's told in an honest way. Even Harris' character gets fair treatment. He's technically the bad guy, yet he plays it in such a way that you feel sorry for him in the end. He's just doing his job. However, the cards are stacked against him. The plot makes it easy to root for Vassily's success – he's killing Germans after all – yet the deaths portrayed here are treated with gravity and respect. The mass carnage in this film is part of history, not generated for entertainment value. In fact, it's often hard to stomach. Though the film contains a great deal of action, Annaud is clearly not trying to glorify warfare. Films like this and RYAN make the horrors of war all too clear. The realism of the sets, costumes and special effects is stunning to comprehend. The logistics of production on this scale bogles the mind, especially when they have to be historically accurate. This is a film not to be entered into lightly. There's hope at the end of the tunnel, but it's a long, bloody road to get there. Fine performances, first-rate production design and an engaging story make this a film a must-see...except for the squeamish.

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