There's a Arnold Schwarzenegger movie inside American Sniper just dying to get out. Mostly, the film is a handheld, authentic war flick like The Hurt Locker. Much of it is heat of the battle stuff, and it's beautifully-done. But it's also full of laughable macho posturing and positively mailed-in scenes. What else can we expect from a movie that calls its hero, "The Legend?"
Where I come from, there's only one Legend, and he wore number 33 for the Celtics. But Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, is another kind of Legend. "The Deadliest Sniper in American History," the man credited with 160 kills, is the focus of director Clint Eastwood's new film.
Kyle wrote an autobiography that told of his military exploits as a Navy SEAL sniper during the Iraq Insurgency and Jason Hall's script focuses mainly on the action. The movie tries to carry a "back home" subplot that shows the effects of war on Kyle, but it's throw away filmmaking. Kyle is startled by noises. There's no real writing there.
Kyle also told of his exploits back home in his book, when he wasn't getting startled by the blender. These included punching Jesse Ventura for bad-mouthing the country, working for Blackwater, and sniping looters during Hurricane Katrina. Now, that stuff might have been something to focus on. But, alas, the veracity of Kyle's claims has been questioned so that part of the legend stays on the shelf. But aren't liars just as fascinating? What if Hall and Eastwood had really gotten to know this guy? Now that's a movie worthy of the Oscars.
Instead, American Sniper, which has been nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, glosses over Kyle's personal life and focuses on the true, heroic parts of it, creating the legend. We do meet his wife (Sienna Miller) whom he picks up in a bar and leaves at home when he goes overseas to fight. But, these sequences seem forced into the movie. They're mere placeholders until he's back in Iraq (Kyle did four tours). Thankfully, the war scenes are magnificent and so is Cooper, who maintains his natural charm behind a grizzly beard and 40 extra pounds. He also nails a dead-on Texas accent and is at his best when he's pissed off. He carries this film more than any other actor carried a film in 2014. American Sniper would be a John Cena movie without him.
Cooper is first introduced as Kyle during the hero's rodeo days. He enlists to be a SEAL at 30-years-old, very late, but he crushes the training course and is soon deployed to Iraq after September 11. The first scene of the movie shows the awful decisions snipers have to make. Staring at a woman and child holding a grenade, the shooter must decide whether the threat is credible or not. "They'll fry you if you're wrong. They'll send you to Leavenworth." His spotter tells him. This is great stuff.
It's also classic macho movie making. American Sniper is peppered with old school Commando-type scenes and lines, but they're masked with the sheen of authenticity and fine performances. The intense SEAL training sequence is followed by Kyle shooting a conveniently-placed rattlesnake from an impossible distance. "I'm more accurate when they're breathing." He says in Stallone-fashion. Kyle even has a buddy who tells him he's planning to propose while they're on patrol. It's like a scene out of Hot Shots. What do you think is going to happen to that guy? And then, next sequence: perfect Steadicam work in and out of the concrete jungle of Baghdad. It's a weird combination of realism and absurdity.
As The Legend of Chris Kyle grows, Eastwood piles on the compliments. Fellow soldiers revere him. His brother tells him he's his hero. And Kyle keeps killing. He becomes a target of the enemy (referred to as Al Qaeda), who have a sniper of their own: Mustafa, another legend who was once an Olympian. Enemy at the Gates had a great sniper face-off and Eastwood's film does also. The two best warriors must fight in the end, it's the basis of every action movie. So the action in Iraq resolves itself conventionally in that respect. But, more than anything, the film paints Kyle as a guy trying to do the right thing in the worst situation imaginable. Does he? Eastwood's answer is a resounding yes.