A movie for people with time to waste, "Sniper" (citywide) is about as compelling as a Soldier of Fortune magazine cover set to music.
Despite high talent before and behind the cameras, it's a shallow 90-minute rites-of-manhood saga, with Tom Berenger and Billy Zane playing a pair of Marine sniper-killers hired to eliminate a Colombian drug czar and a phony Panamanian political leader. The director, Luis Llosa, turns it into a long prowl through the jungle, interrupted by sporadic gunplay, helicopters, lots of shots taken through telescopic sights and stop-motion camera trickery that suggests we're following the flight path of individual bullets, or seeing them zoom right at us.
Llosa is the cousin of Peru's greatest novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, but there's no hint of his famous relative's "magic realism" here, none of the elegant, playful literacy or many-leveled plots of books like "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" or "The Green House." The filmmaking Llosa's background includes some low-budget Roger Corman military actioners and that's the method here: Get it on and get it done.
Every once in a while, Michael Frost Beckner and Crash Leyland's script suggests something interesting: the loneliness and boredom of the sniper's job, the political machinations around them, or the psychological cost of being a professional killer. But the themes aren't explored. They're skated over, or used as hooks.
Berenger and Zane are interesting actors and they make a vivid contrast: Berenger, with his stoical demeanor and Newmanesque good looks and Zane, who can always suggest something loose and wild underneath. But the script doesn't let them plumb the depths Berenger hit in "Platoon" or Zane in "Dead Calm." Its cynicism is superficial, macho sentimentality always an inch below.
"Sniper" (MPAA rated R for violence and language) is not a dumb movie. It doesn't seem to come straight from the Yahoo Academy, like the bulk of the '80s military thrillers; it's hip to the darker side of its story. But it's not really smart either. The movie's vision is fixed on that telescope sight, the distant target--and that turns it into a sort of video game, full of bloodless, stylized carnage. Death never stings here. And, even if it does, there's always another helicopter.
Tom Berenger: Tom Beckett
Billy Zane: Richard Miller
J. T. Walsh: Chester Van Damme
Aden Young: Doug Papich
A TriStar Pictures presentation. Director Luis Llosa. Producer Robert L. Rosen. Executive producers Mark Johnson, Walon Green, Patrick Wachsberger. Screenplay by Michael Frost Beckner, Crash Leyland. Cinematographer Bill Butler. Editor Scott Smith. Music Gary Chang. Production design Herbert Pinter. Art director Nicholas McCallum. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (Violence, language).