Thomas Beckett (Tom Berenger) is an American military sniper who is nearing the end of his usefulness as he ages out of his job, but still has the chops to deliver the kills as ordered by his bosses. He has been dropped into the jungles of Central America with a rookie partner, and while they carry off their mission with skill, it is the point when they are to be picked up by the helicopter to take them back to base that they run into trouble, for the chopper arrives during daylight, utterly against Beckett's instructions since it places them both in too much danger. They don't have much choice now, and run across a river to be rescued, but it is too late for his partner and he is shot in turn by a different sniper - Beckett is furious!
Sniper was positioned as a cut above the average action flick that was coming out of Hollywood at the time, as if it was a thinking man's Chuck Norris movie rather than yet another shoot and punch up effort whose more natural home would have been on VHS. Actually, it turned out as the years went by its most natural home was late night television, as it became one of those go to movies that broadcasters across the world would use to fill up a ninety minute gap in a schedule at the close of the day, with many a viewer finding they would be watching it instead of going to bed because at that time in the evening they had nothing else to do. It was one of those works that generated at least a low level of interest in the viewer.
No matter if they nodded off on the sofa while it played out its ever so butch relationship between Berenger's old hand at the sniper game and Billy Zane as Richard Miller (Dick Miller - surely not?), the young upstart who is an excellent shot but has never killed anyone. This was the sort of film you could drift away from consciousness during and regain that engagement with the drama by the end, though that ending may have left you retiring to bed in a rather grumpy mood because it didn't quite match the rest of the plot, and had a jarring effect. Before this it was basic buddy movie proceedings with pretensions to saying something important about the business of organised murder, though that turned out to be more "you have a job to do, get on with it".
Berenger and Zane struck sparks off one another adequately, though the lack of humour was telling, and for a while there was a passage where Miller was held up as a namby-pamby thanks to his more feminised approach to assassination, buying fashion gear for camouflage, applying his face paint in a compact as if he were powdering his nose and touching up his lipstick, that sort of thing. This was by way of explanation as to why Miller was reluctant to pull the trigger once he had someone in his sights, and director Luis Llosa, a Roger Corman graduate, was very taken with the sights-eye view of targets caught in the crosshairs, a cliché but he did not seem to mind, he was going to use it as if it were going out of fashion (and quite what those red dots at the bottom of the circle were supposed to be were anyone's guess).
So we had the high tech approach to, in this instance, assassinating a Panamanian gangster who was about to be promoted to a position of great political power, too much power the United States were comfortable with, and therefore had to be bumped off as quickly as possible, hence the reason for dispatching Beckett and Miller to jaunt through the jungle avoiding his henchmen and grabbing their chance while they could. It was a slog to get through the undergrowth, and a problem was that you felt it was a slog to watch them doing so, with all those aims for investigating the psychology of the professional killers - hitmen for the American authorities, essentially - ringing rather hollow when it was so pleased with their action setpieces that were rather average in, ahem, execution. The main trick was to follow a bullet from barrel to impact, kind of like Kevin Costner's arrows in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, yet this highlighted the film's uncertainty over whether this was serious contemplation or pure escapism. Watching after midnight, you may plump for the latter. Music by Gary Chang.