There’s no denying that Clint Eastwood is a wonderful actor and, generally speaking, a pretty excellent film director — but 2014 has not been kind to the man who gave us High Plains Drifter (1973), Sudden Impact (1983), and the brilliant Unforgiven (1992). (Mr. Eastwood has directed well over thirty features since 1971, and one could argue that more than half of them are damn good or better.) So one should take no pleasure in pointing that out, between the flat, recycled, and tiresome Jersey Boys, and the generic, simplistic, and borderline infuriating American Sniper, well, Mr. Eastwood isn’t having a particularly great year behind the camera.
That’s not to say there isn’t some bare-bones, basic “war movie” fun to be found in American Sniper. There definitely are a few moments of solid sniper-style suspense and explosive war mayhem — it’s just that American Sniper claims to be the story of a true-life hero, when in fact it’s just a rickety collection of cliches, conventions, and stereotypes that simply drops a true-life hero in the central role.
Make no mistake: the late Chris Kyle is an American hero. On the battlefield he saved countless lives with his outstanding marksman skills (the most lethal sniper in US history), and then (after four tours of duty as a Navy SEAL) he returned home, only to be killed by an emotionally unbalanced war veteran in 2013. Mr. Kyle’s wartime heroics are worthy of a film much more memorable than American Sniper, and the way the man’s death is handled in the film is almost outrageously disrespectful. Well-intended, surely, but mishandled to a dizzying degree.
The ending is far from the film’s only problem: the action sequences are well-conceived but hardly dazzling, there’s a head villain who seems to have been tossed in for dramatic purposes, and most of the cooler “sniper stuff” recalls a considerably better film (Enemy at the Gates). Also the brief respites of Chris at home are all but packed with redundant “even when you’re here, you’re not here!” arguments with his wife. The wartime / back at home flip-flop approach feels sort of modular and clunky; the film comes across more like a handsome if predictable series of short episodes that have been stitched together.
To borrow one popular example that symbolizes the laziness of the film: there is one sequence in which Cooper holds a “stage baby” that is so outrageously fake-looking that it all but demolishes an ostensibly pivotal scene between the two leads. A small nitpick, one might say, while others might see it as evidence that not all that much attention was paid to the “dialogue” scenes. Were it not for the graphic violence and profanity, one might swear that American Sniper is a mid-budget network TV movie.
On the plus side, Bradley Cooper does a fine job of creating a plainly noble and heroic character, and Sienna Miller often manages to transcend her thinly-drawn role as Chris’ fiercely loyal yet frequently unhappy wife. And while some of the battle sequences are suitably suspenseful, nothing in the film ever achieves much momentum. While certainly a watchable enough film for war movie buffs, one expects more than two strong performances and a few cool action scenes from a film based on this recent story of heroism, loyalty, and tragedy.
2.5 out of 5 burritos.