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‘Sniper’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 30, 1993

It's a jungle out there, and once again, Tom Berenger is in it. In "Sniper," Berenger plays spiritually corrupt Thomas Beckett (please!), the Marine Corps' top covert gunner, who is assigned to Panama, where leftist rebels and drug lords are prime targets. After yet another of his young target spotters is killed on the job, the grizzled Beckett is assigned Richard Miller (Billy Zane), a GS-9 fresh off a Washington SWAT team. Their mission implausible: derail a drug cartel coup by terminating a rebel leader and his drug lord bankroller at their jungle estate. Did we mention that the kid has never actually fired his rifle, except in the Olympics?

That, of course, provides for "Sniper's" subtext: Beckett, already deadened to the "rush" of sighting a human target, can't fully trust his new sidekick. They go on about it like a pair of macaws, sniping at each other, at one point getting downright metaphysical about the art of killing. Perhaps Berenger thought he was playing Samuel Beckett.

The more credible drama involves setting up for the one-shot hits and claustrophobic travels through the Panamanian jungle, a journey made doubly difficult when the hit squad is itself stalked by one of Beckett's former proteges. Still, the more daunting challenge is Madre Nature, and some of this footage is spectacular. The filmmakers also rely on long-distance sniper-scapes and a variation of the "Robin Hood"-arrow trick, resorting to slow-motion bullet trajectory shots whenever the plot needs a little pick-me-up.

The thickening Berenger plays Beckett somewhere between his previous Jungle Tom roles in "Platoon" and last year's "At Play in the Fields of the Lord." A spiritual fatalist, he's earthly kin to "Predator." Killing is all he's got now . . . except, of course, for dying. Zane merely progresses from GQ glam to Soldier of Fortune grit, achieving a minor epiphany along the way.

Only mildly exciting as it grinds toward its conclusion, "Sniper" falls apart in the last reel as writers Michael Frost Beckner and Crash Leyland dispense with credibility by turning the rebel and drug lord's forces into the Keystone Kartel, invoking a Magic Bullet and attempting an Oliver Stone denouement. Unfortunately, director Luis Llosa is no Oliver Stone.

"Sniper" is rated R and contains profanity and violence.

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