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Tense ‘Sniper’ just off target

  • COURTESY WARNER BROS.
    Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in "American Sniper."
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Arriving in theaters just over 22 months after Chris Kyle’s untimely death at a shooting range near Glen Rose, Texas, "American Sniper" often has a sorrowful immediacy.

‘AMERICAN SNIPER’

Rated: R

***

Opens Friday

But director Clint Eastwood’s film (the Oscar winner’s second feature in less than a year, after the middling "Jersey Boys") also bears the weight of a decade spent warring in the Middle East, considering the long, painful view of a generation sacrificed for goals that aren’t always clear-cut.

Bradley Cooper, who also co-produced "Sniper," stars as the West Texas native, the most lethal sniper in United States military history, who embarked on four tours of duty and amassed 160 confirmed kills during his stints in Iraq.

The film’s narrative, adapted by screenwriter Jason Hall from Kyle’s 2012 autobiography of the same name, wastes little time establishing Kyle as a forthright, honorable man, whose father (Ben Reed) instills him a sense of pride in being able to finish a fight. These early, efficient scenes resonate throughout the film — Kyle is admonished by his father to never leave his rifle behind, which has a poignant recurrence near the film’s chaotic climax — but feel shallow, offering little insight beyond the obvious.

Cooper, who packed on a reported 40 pounds to play Kyle, acquits himself well as a Texan, slipping into the accent without going overboard, and radiating a coiled intensity, even as he flirts with Taya (Sienna Miller), the woman who would eventually become his wife.

"American Sniper’s" main focus, however, isn’t the man, necessarily, so much as his actions overseas. The film becomes a closed loop of pain, with Kyle deploying to Iraq and returning home four times, with each trip back to the States underscoring the effects killing is having on his psyche, pushing him further and further away from his young family.

"Sniper’s" middle section, including an absolutely stomach-turning sequence where Kyle and his comrades are confronted with the horrors of a rogue enforcer known only as "The Butcher," is visceral and intense, providing a Call of Duty-esque thrill in watching Kyle dispatch enemies from hundreds of yards away in the heat of battle.

But the adrenaline can’t replace perception, and despite Eastwood’s deft staging of the Iraqi scenes (filmed in Morocco), they don’t bring viewers any closer to understanding why Kyle insists on repeatedly returning to the war zones.

Cooper does a far better job, often with little more than a range of emotions flickering across his reddened, bearded face, illustrating the knife’s edge Kyle finds himself perched upon — a superb killer, whose work extracts whole chunks of his soul. It’s a performance deserving of a better overall film than this one.

Another disappointment is Hall’s screenplay, which doesn’t bother to flesh out any characters beyond Kyle and Taya, rendering everyone else — from Kyle’s fellow soldiers down to his children — as ciphers. Kyle’s tragic death, in 2013 at age 38, isn’t shown, but described in a title card, and footage from the funeral procession that concluded at now-AT&T Stadium plays beneath the credits.

Given the freshness of Kyle’s heroic and ultimately heartbreaking story, and the fact that American troops continue to find themselves enmeshed in Middle Eastern conflict, perhaps some distance is needed to fully explore what this decade of combat has done to not only our country, but also to those who have selflessly put themselves in harm’s way, again and again.

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