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American Sniper: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Review

American Sniper: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art
American Sniper is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray + DVD combo.

American Sniper (2014) movie poster American Sniper

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014 / Running Time: 132 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Clint Eastwood / Writers: Jason Hall (screenplay); Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, Jim DeFelice (book)

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle), Luke Grimes (Marc Lee), Jake McDorman (Biggles), Cory Hardrict ("D"/Dandridge), Kevin Lacz (Dauber), Navid Negahban (Sheikh Al-Obodi), Keir O'Donnell (Jeff Kyle), Elise Robertson (Debbie Kyle), Marnette Patterson (Sarah), Melissa Hayden (Receptionist), Troy Vincent (Pastor), Jason Hall (Cowboy), Pamela Denise Weaver (Marc Lee's Mom), Amie Farrell (Marc Lee's Wife), Tami Goveia (Navy Nurse), Madeleine McGraw (McKenna), Cole Konis (Young Chris Kyle), Ben Reed (Wayne Kyle), Sammy Sheik (Mustafa), Jonathan Groff (Young VetMads)

Buy American Sniper from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD DVD Instant Video

In the olden days, many directors made multiple movies a year. Now, that's pretty rare, with the most respected filmmakers generally only finishing a movie every two or three years. By staying consistent and releasing a new movie every year, Woody Allen has become the model of productivity.
Of the few directors with more than one 2014 release, none is as accomplished as Clint Eastwood. The long popular movie star known for his westerns remains a draw in front of the camera; unadjusted for inflation, 2008's Gran Torino stands as the biggest hit of his career. But these days, he's more commonly found behind the camera and while ticket sales suffer from his non-appearance, films benefit from the clout and experience he brings to the director's chair.

Adapted from the decorated Broadway jukebox musical, Jersey Boys proved to be merely Eastwood's opening act of 2014, summer entertainment soon forgotten. If we are to compare Eastwood's 2014 to Steven Spielberg's 1993, then Jersey Boys was his Jurassic Park (just go with it), meaning American Sniper is his Schindler's List. And though Sniper won't win the Best Picture Oscar or feature on future AFI countdowns, it stands a pretty good chance of getting a Best Picture nomination, after many pundits had written it off.

A bulked-up Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, the titular hero of "American Sniper."

Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, a US Navy SEAL who has been identified as the most lethal sniper in American military history. The story struck Bradley Cooper, who secured the rights to Kyle's 2012 autobiography of the same name and takes his first credit as simply producer. Cooper also gained 40 pounds to more closely resemble the real Kyle in the lead role. It's a display of genuine commitment from someone who has quickly risen from supporting roles to comedy lead to serious, in-demand, two-time Academy Award-nominated actor.

After establishing what it is that Kyle does -- from a rooftop in Fallujah he has to find the line between civilian and terrorist with his finger on the trigger, even if the crosshairs are on a woman or child -- we open with Kyle as a boy (played by Cole Konis)
on his first hunting trip with his father. Kyle has a gift for shooting, which he will come to put to use. As a 30-year-old man, he endures the absurdly rigorous initiation into the SEALs.

Before deploying to Iraq in the wake of September 11th, Kyle says the right things at a bar to win over Taya (Sienna Miller), whom he marries. On rooftops, Kyle earns a reputation for his accuracy in taking out threats and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. He is nicknamed The Legend as his kill count dwarfs that of everyone else around him. Feeling alive and valuable in the moment, Kyle isn't as alert or savvy in between tours, when he returns to his native Texas to spend time with Taya and their two kids. Despite the obvious dangers of his calling, Kyle keeps going back for more, checking in with his wife on disquieting phone calls that often include gunfire sounds.

Rather than something else in Eastwood's directorial resume, American Sniper most readily invites comparisons to Lone Survivor, a similarly true story of Navy SEALs showing courage in modern warfare released exactly one year ago. That film, from Hancock, Battleship, and Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg, was not perceived as an awards contender despite being timed to narrowly qualify with a two-theater Christmas Day opening. It ended up earning good reviews and doing really solid business by the time it opened nationwide in January. It even picked up a couple of nominations in the Oscars' two sound categories. With Eastwood attached and Cooper coming off back-to-back Oscar nominations for his work in end-of-the-year David O. Russell films, American Sniper had more potential to earn serious recognition.

Though completely snubbed by the Golden Globes, Sniper is back in the Oscar race following nominations from both the Producers Guild and Writers Guild and inclusion in the top ten lists of both the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review. One thing working in the film's favor besides talented personnel is the backing of Warner Bros. Pictures, by far the most currently productive of the major studios. Warner Bros. has had one or more films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar every year for the past eight years. Since the field expanded to include more than five nominees, Warner has been represented, even in years when it looked like they wouldn't (The Blind Side in 2009, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in 2011). This year, Warner doesn't have any other horse in the race; Inherent Vice and The Judge are likely competing for the same Supporting Actor slot they could conceivably each miss, the final Hobbit movie is certain to settle for technical categories, and though expected to win Animated Feature The Lego Movie is unlikely to compete outside of that category. Thus, Sniper could be Warner's ticket to the big show and it's probably right on the bubble.

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) checks in with his wife Taya in a distressing phone call. Taya (Sienna Miller) is disturbed by her husband's behavior at their child's birthday party.

In quality, Sniper is also comparable to Lone Survivor. Nothing about the film screams Clint Eastwood; the color palette isn't particularly monochromatic, the film is set close enough to the present day, and it's more of an action movie than a drama. It's not something we've seen before from Cooper, but he has no difficulty whatsoever meeting the challenges, adopting a Lone Star State twang to complement his bulked-up physique. It's a whole-hearted characterization, something you might not have foreseen five years after the first Hangover movie. But Cooper has honed his craft with Russell (with whom he'll reunite alongside Jennifer Lawrence on Christmas 2015's Joy) and Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines). He no longer has to prove he's more than a pretty face and a funny straight man. But he does so, placing the weight of this involving story on his back amidst a supporting cast you might well not recognize at all.

Sniper does not have the most complex of stories. In addition, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall (the 2013 flop Paranoia) aren't always the best at having us know who's who and what's going on. Much of the movie unfolds with the burly, bearded, Punisher insignia-clad Kyle taking aim at threatening targets. You can compare it to a first-person shooter video game, only the action typically isn't presented in the first person. Eastwood also doesn't sell Kyle's traumas in the most tactful manner. The understatement of The Hurt Locker, a film clearly evoked, is missed here, although Cooper's performance does supply some welcome subtlety.

The trauma and the contrast between Kyle's two lives are the most striking things about the film. There's one big action set piece serving as the obligatory climax. There are some supporting characters you'll recognize more than others. But narrative isn't the film's utmost concern: it always takes a backseat to the hero whose devotion to his country is never completely understood but also never in doubt. That design explains and excuses the unremarkable nature of the Kyles' marriage, which gets a good amount of screentime without serving to do any more than humanize this celebrated individual.

Based on the strong numbers it has put up in just four coastal theaters, the movie is poised to have a commercially successful run, which non-technical Oscar nods can only sweeten. I suspect the performance will be measured against Lone Survivor, whose two weeks in limited release didn't generate anywhere near as many ticket sales.

Buy American Sniper from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Clint Eastwood: Million Dollar Baby Invictus Hereafter Jersey Boys
Bradley Cooper: American Hustle Silver Linings Playbook Guardians of the Galaxy
Sienna Miller: Stardust Casanova | Written by Jason Hall: Paranoia
Lone Survivor Shooter Fury Dallas Buyers Club
Oscar 2014 Contenders: Boyhood Selma Birdman The Imitation Game The Theory of Everything The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Reviewed January 16, 2015.

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