There’s a brutal moment near the end of Enemy Lines when it becomes clear that not even the good guys can be sure exactly who is on whose side in this tale of secret missions to extract a nuclear scientist from Nazi clutches. Neither does anyone seem to grasp what a nuclear scientist is, but his role in designing a new kind of weapon that could end World War II makes him a prize worth fighting and dying for.

The Allied commando team is led by a no-nonsense Yankee, Major Kaminski (Ed Westwick), although the Brits who make up the rest of the team chafe at having to follow American orders. The Nazis who are holding the scientist (Pawel Delag) captive are suitably sneery and evil, but a group of Russian commandos present a wild-card scenario. Ostensibly on the same side as the Allies, the Russians don the bullet-ridden uniforms of dead Nazis and strike out through the forest to hunt down the good guys and steal their prize. Polish partisans, hiding in the woods, are suspicious of everyone and are infiltrated by collaborators.

The tension between these factions drives the film. Directed by Anders Banke, Enemy Lines is most effective when the characters are all sneaking through the snowy forest, at once hunting and evading one another. Violence erupts at the snapping of a twig, and then the bullets start flying. The roster of good guys and bad guys diminishes swiftly as character after character is dispatched, often with a single bullet to the torso. The unceremonious nature of so many deaths is at once shocking and refreshingly uncinematic. There are no Tarantinoesque fountains of gore, just the sudden thump of a hole in someone’s lapel, and they drop.

Is all of this worth the life of one scientist? The moral quandaries stack up as more and more people die in the attempt to save the guy who can make a weapon that will end up killing many tens of thousands. He’s a piece of the puzzle in the Manhattan Project, one colonel explains, although the scientist himself prefers to say that his work will provide enough energy to power whole cities. What could have been a thorny debate is shrugged off by the characters who are more concerned with getting the job done than with asking themselves whether they ought to be doing it.

Once betrayals and friendly fire start to scramble the factions, the Allies’ mission seems doomed to failure unless they can make a razor-thin window for extraction. A final stand on a stretch of road with oncoming Nazi tanks and mortally wounded heroes recalls the heartbreaking climax of Saving Private Ryan, but the presence of the Russian commandos adds another layer of tension, and suggests that their story might be the more intriguing one. Knowing that the prize is slipping through their grasp, they have to decide where to turn their guns. We all know who ended up winning the war—the image of a fat bomb in a shadowy room over the scientist’s shoulder drives that point home—but the untold stories of the ones who died along the way are still where the drama lies.

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