Sniper was directed by Luis Llosa (Anaconda, Fire on the Amazon), written by Michael Frost Beckner (Prince Valiant, Spy Game) and Crash Leyland (The Final Cut), and stars Tom Berenger (Eye See You, A Tale of Two Guns), Billy Zane (The Believer, Ghosts of War), Kenneth Radley (Resistance, Joe vs. Carole), Frederick Miragliotta (Big Sky, Dadah is Death), Carlos Alvarez (El Candidato, Highway Patrolman), Reynaldo Arenas (Max is Missing, Hour of the Assassin), and Aden Young (The Unseen, Black Robe). It follows a veteran sniper and his new spotter as they make their way through the jungle of Panama to assassinate multiple high-value targets.
The Plot: Keeping a special mission like an assassination simple in its delivery makes sense to better immerse the audience into the world that the characters inhabit, so Sniper trims a lot of potential beats and subtext to focus itself. Maybe a little too much.
With their target being taken out, all that sniper Beckett (Berenger) and spotter Papich (Young) must do is wait for extraction. Everything seems fine until that time comes, but a timing error gets Papich killed by a rival sniper. Beckner and Leyland’s script starts prototypically and progresses as so by bringing Beckett onto another mission; this time to take out potential Panamanian faux-president Alvarez (Miragliotta), who’s being funded by drug baron Ochoa (Alvarez). The only problem is that Miller (Zane), a civilian, is going to be his spotter and have command over the mission.
Getting to the jungle has its own problems, but once they’ve arrived, the trek truly begins. The script tries to introduce a new element with a secondary conflict between nationalist natives and Colombian-backed guerilla fighters. It doesn’t carry much weight in the broader story, but it does bring native leader Cacique (Arenas) briefly into the fold; he wants the Americans to take out rebel aide “El Cirujano” (Radley). They accept but the plan falls through, making this thread a diversion rather than an important sub-assignment.
Diversions come into play and do help to give the mission an air of reality with ever-changing goals, but while these assist in Sniper’s immersive qualities, they don’t make up for a lack of objective clarity. It makes sense that the characters would only receive a baseline understanding of what they’re doing, but the straightforwardness of the narrative from thereon feels like a missed opportunity, even if it is efficient at doing what’s advertised.
The Characters: I can’t comment on the realism of making an odd couple out of one of the best snipers the Marine Corps has and a newbie civilian shooter, but I can say that the idea, while a little dry, works well enough in presentation to make some good characters to exist within the story.
Beckett has been sniping since Vietnam; having seen all that can be conceived in the midst of combat, he’s hardened to most of them. With 74 kills under his belt, the rush has been depleted and he’s left with the faces of those whom he’s killed. This would be a rather stock character if it weren’t clear that, while he’s entirely desensitized to killing whoever needs to be killed.
And making deals with whoever can provide tangible benefit to his assignments while seeing his compatriots die has taken its toll on him. His experience can’t make up for the limited time his handful of now dead spotters didn’t have, and for that, he seems to resent those who assign them to him, but not the men alongside him such as Miller and Papich.
Miller is significantly less complex than Beckett, using a similarly high number of tropes in creating a hotshot freshman who thinks he’s got the upper hand on his more experienced superior. Picked straight out of training, Miller thinks highly of those who back him and butts heads with the men in the field, only to be humbled once he figures out that he doesn’t know as much as he thought he did once he’s in a real scenario. Naturally, he has trouble killing, but under Beckett, his talent comes through. His character’s skeleton isn’t anything special, but the moments of common ground between him and Beckett fill in what cliche writing could not.
Back and forth between the two of them makes up for every bit of character the movie has to offer, as the villains are just targets picked out by higher-ups for elimination. Beyond generic briefings about how bad they are, there’s not much room for further understanding, making the times when the movie deviates from Beckett and Miller to show El Cirujano torturing locals and Ochoa dealing with drugs a slog.
The Thrills: Sniper does what it says on the poster well, but well-placed rounds are only part of the picture. Aside from what it promises, there are other, less violent factors in play that help to make the movie exciting, if not a white-knuckle masterpiece.
Sequences revolving around the leads setting up their positions and taking out their targets are the main attraction in Llosa’s picture, and he delivers on the idea. With each instance of target acquisition, the movie slows down in every way, from the music to the character movement, allowing Beckett and Miller to conceal themselves and work out the logistics of each shot.
Sometimes this practice includes wind speed and range, but it always gives the impression that each shot counts, as a single miss could spell the end of the mission. Ramifications of Miller’s initial failures aren’t done particularly well, but the punctuation of those that succeed is sufficiently marked with a simple, bloody end that the movie sells well.
Psychological examinations of both leading men are attempted, but they’re less successful than the raw characterizations and their assassination escapades. Often times they bicker, and often times these arguments don’t feel organic. Moments like Miller’s insistence on using the preplanned route and his frustration at having to sleep in uncomfortable places aren’t believable since anyone – even someone as green as Miller – would understand that within the context of the jungle, plans and luxury aren’t accounted for. Bright spots like Beckett defending his actions because the mission always comes first, while not original, are believable and give the pair an edginess that the complaints are incapable of.
It’s an inevitability that Sniper was going to leer into a faster-paced finale, but what makes the crescendo stumble is the odd choice to have an almost two-part third act in which the characters arrive at their targets’ hacienda and expertly take out most of the enemies within, only for the movie to leave this location for a false ending and in so doing, undoing some of the tension wound up minutes prior. None of this completely derails the feature, which is always at least moderately engaging, but there was potential for more.
The Technics: Llosa did a good job at creating a tense atmosphere for the movie, using a cool confidence in the location and the basic premise to wring out some personality from the script.
Using plenty of aerial shots of the jungle and tracking shots accompanied with scope overlays shot by Bill Butler (Limousine, Jaws) that normally pull out to the sight of camouflaged faces and ghillie suited bodies by Ray Summers (Edward Scissorhands, Porky’s Revenge) and Allan A. Apone (Infinite, The Fighter) respectively, the movie does a terrific job of bringing authenticity to its setting, selling the broad strokes of the premise, if not the finer, more realistic details.
Pacing is decent here, making the frequent downtime sensible in context, as the mission was never going to be over in the blink of an eye. The movie watches as the leads sleep in dirty waters and stare unendingly into their sights, which in any other circumstance would’ve been a bore. The setting undoes any negatives related to action very well.
Sniper isn’t a classic thriller, but it does a good job at transmogrifying other suspense films into a new setting, paired with punchy effects and good chemistry from Berenger and Zane.
Sniper is available on DVD and Digital platforms from Sony Pictures.