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Snipers And The Surly Kickmeister

Perhaps the truest sign of Saving Private Ryan's artistic influence and commercial success is the release this weekend of Enemy at the Gates, a World War II film based, for this part of the world, anyway, in an unlikely place for a mainstream movie.

The film concerns the siege of Stalingrad, a subject little-known on this side of the Atlantic. Call it the battle of the butchers: Its seeds lie in the supreme arrogance and paranoia of Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler, who launched a sneak attack on the Soviet Union because he believed Germany could handle a two-front war and that inevitably Stalin would attack him. For his part, Stalin behaved stupidly. He ignored signs of the looming German offensive and, because he'd purged the officer class of his armed forces repeatedly during the 1930s, faced the Germans with an army in chaos.

All that duplicity and brutality came to a head at Stalingrad, an industrial center key to German plans. With the fate of the Eastern Front hinging upon the outcome, the fighting in the snow and bitter cold was as brutal, ruthless, heroic and relentless as any in human history, and on a massive scale.

With a budget of $85 million — said to be the most ever spent on a movie filmed in Europe — expect Enemy at the Gates to replicate at least some of that scale.

Don't expect a history lesson. There's a romantic triangle between Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law), political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) and lovely soldier Tania (Rachel Weisz), and the movie focuses on a duel between Zaitsev and German sniper Major Konig (Ed Harris) and the story, probably apocryphal, that Hitler sent Konig into Stalingrad to kill Zaitsev.

Dueling snipers provide filmmakers with a great device to scale massive storylines and combat down to a human level. Spielberg had a sniper (played by Barry Pepper) in Ryan, and whole movies (most notably the HBO-released film Shot Through The Heart, on the Yugoslavian civil war) have been crafted around the single-mindedness and icy precision of "one shot, one kill," the sniper's credo.

In backing Enemy and the forthcoming Pearl Harbor, Hollywood is betting that the success of Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line three years ago signaled the return of the war movie, particularly the World War II movie, as a frontline genre. It will be interesting to see whether he R-rated Enemy at the Gates will measure up to that standard, or wash out of boot camp.

The other major release this week hasn't anything like that standard to measure up to. It's a new Steven Seagal movie, Exit Wounds. This time, the surly kickmeister plays an unorthodox police detective (unorthodox because he commits enough police brutality to occupy a platoon of internal affairs investigators) who stumbles upon some police corruption and ends up teaming with a crime kingpin (hip-hopster DMX).

It's easy, though probably unwise, to pick on Seagal's movies. They're often formulaic actioners with silly macho dialogue and ludicrous plots and though you have to applaud his intentions, the environmental themes he ran through his latest films were terribly heavy-handed.

However, when he's teamed with a decent director and script, the results can be a guilty sort of pleasure found in Above The Law and, most enjoyably, in Under Siege. That featured him in a more self-effacing mode and Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey as two way over-the-top villains.

This time out his director is Andrzej Bartkowiak, a well-respected cinematographer (Terms of Endearment, Prizzi's Honor, Speed) who last directed the ambitious but hopeless Romeo Must Die.

Exit Wounds is rated R with lots of fighting and violence.