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

American Sniper (2014) movie poster American Sniper

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014 / Running Time: 133 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), Ben Reed (Wayne Kyle), Elise Robertson (Debbie Kyle), Cole Konis (Young Chris Kyle), Marnette Patterson (Sarah), Brian Hallisay (Capt. Gillespie), Sam Jaeger (Navy SEAL Lt. Martin), Sammy Sheik (Mustafa), Miro Hamada (The Butcher), Jonathan Groff (Young Vet-Mads)

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With foreign markets mattering more and worldwide grosses continuing to soar, winning the year's domestic box office crown does not mean as much as it used to.
But it remains a significant achievement to emerge as the best-attended movie in what remains one of Earth's biggest and most important markets. Films that have taken that title vary in genre, composition, critical acclaim, and public opinion. They all nonetheless caught filmgoers' attentions to the point of being the must-see movie of the year. Increasingly, the domestic champ is one of two things: a PG-13 live-action adventure or an animated family comedy. Either way, more often than not, the film is a sequel, owing part of its business to an earlier film's effectiveness.

Next to the likes of E.T., Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Toy Story, Titanic, Spider-Man, The Dark Knight, Avatar, The Avengers, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, American Sniper stands out. North America's top earner among all 2014 releases, this drama does not fit the mold of a commercially successful blockbuster. It is rated R, which already cuts out a significant amount of its potential audience. It's a true story, which usually induces a pretty modest commercial ceiling. Its cast is short on star power, with only one actor you could consider a household name. Its director, Clint Eastwood, had repeatedly struggled to find audiences for films he didn't also act in. And not only is it a war movie, but a movie about the War on Terror, a still controversial conflict that seems to have driven away business for its most timely dramatizations.

Despite all this, buoyed by word-of-mouth, divisive press, current affairs relevance, and award season recognition, American Sniper caught the American public's notice. In an industry full of effects-laden escapism, from superhero movies to dystopian fantasy to all-ages animation, this true drama defied all the prevailing wisdom and sold more tickets than any other film. No one at the beginning of 2014 could have predicted Sniper's success. Even just before its Christmas Day opening in four theaters, no one foresaw this relatively small $60 million movie outgrossing the latest Hunger Games and Transformers films, four Marvel Studios tentpoles, the final Hobbit, and other much-anticipated sequels. But it did, becoming the second highest-grossing R-rated film in history behind Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

A bearded and bulked-up Bradley Cooper plays sharpshooting Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in "American Sniper."

Some may see similarities between Sniper and Passion, as both movies undoubtedly owe much of their success to Middle America: the Heartland, the Bible belt, flyover country. Despite its vastness, the central stretch of the United States is one often overlooked by the movie industry. Those parts get the big multiplex fare and its entertainment tends to be universal enough to work for them. But as typical limited release strategies illustrate, more nuanced, challenging, mentally engaging adult-oriented cinema is limited to the cultural hotspots, the giant metropolises with art houses and significantly higher costs of living.

After spending three weeks in just four coastal theaters, American Sniper proved too big of an attraction for such a niche fate. In mid-January, Warner Bros. Pictures expanded the film to 3,555 theaters. Within two weeks, that count had grown to include another 300 locations. By then, it was already clear that this was the real deal, the kind of movie that even got people who go years without seeing a movie on the big screen to carve out a couple of hours and get reacquainted with their nearest theater.

Critics, who had generally dismissed the film upon its premiere November screening at AFI Fest, were pretty measured in their appreciation. But American Sniper worked for a bigger audience: the public, including those who make movies for a living. Artistic validation came in the form of six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Lead Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Some pundits, who had long foreseen the true Oscar race existing between Boyhood, Birdman, and two rival British biopics, were taken by surprise. The bigger surprise may have been that a single financially successful film had snuck into the major categories otherwise dominated by limited release fare. While most blockbusters were relegated to Visual Effects and other minor technical categories, American Sniper, decidedly not your typical blockbuster, had broken through to serious contention, having grossed more domestically than all the other Best Picture nominees put together.

Back home in Texas, Chris (Bradley Cooper) exhibits high blood pressure while accompanying his pregnant wife Taya (Sienna Miller) on a doctor's visit.

Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, a US Navy SEAL 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, three-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. (Hunting and church, two staples of Middle American life, feature in the film's second and third scenes.) 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.

Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) comes down from the rooftops to provide some ground coaching to appreciative US Marines.

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 earlier. 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.

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 insigniaed 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.

Allowing demand to slowly taper off, Warner finally brought American Sniper to DVD and Blu-ray combo pack this week, just ahead of Memorial Day. One dollar from every 2015 purchase of the film will be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project, a military veterans charity.

American Sniper: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: Dolby TrueHD 7.1 (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English DVS, French, Spanish, Portuguese)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, Descriptive Service, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; BD-only: Portuguese
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: May 19, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $35.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as 2-disc DVD ($28.98 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

One hardly "stops the presses" these days, let alone for a new movie looking good on Blu-ray. But American Sniper looks good, just as you would expect. The pristine 2.40:1 picture shows off nice detail and the film's only slightly muted color palette. The film packs more of a punch aurally than visually -- it did win the Best Sound Editing Oscar, after all -- and gladly, the default Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack does not disappoint. It dispatches combat sounds from every direction, placing you inside the action as the movie intends. My viewing companion, a kitten, was mildly concerned by the sounds, but not enough to prevent her from sleeping through the second half of the film.

Bradley Cooper sneaks a peek at the shot Clint Eastwood is composing in "One Soldier's Story: The Journey of 'American Sniper.'" Screenwriter Jason Hall talks Anderson Cooper as part of an excerpted panel in "The Making of 'American Sniper.'"

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

"One Soldier's Story: The Journey of American Sniper" (31:04) explains how the movie came together, with writer Jason Hall, Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Kyle's wife, and other relevant parties all discussing the project's origins, goals, and foundation.

Though it is purely a talking heads piece for the first half (the second half kindly provides production B-roll) and its narration kind of recalls a '90s movie trailer or sports documentary, it's a good and substantial piece nonetheless.

"The Making of American Sniper" (28:35) delves deeper into the international production. It relies a bit much on critics' quotes and trailer-like clips, but proceeds to deliver more high quality talking heads and behind-the-scenes footage in addition to some other interview footage, like Anderson Cooper's talk with the cast and crew. For better or worse, these two featurettes could have easily been combined into a single hour-long documentary.

The two-disc DVD contains the same two featurettes, but since only the first of those discs makes it here, it renders the extras Blu-ray exclusives as far as this combo pack is concerned.

The Blu-ray opens with trailers for San Andreas and Mad Max: Fury Road. The DVD opens with an anti-tobacco spot followed by trailers for San Andreas, Mad Max: Fury Road, Entourage, and Run All Night.

Each disc's main menu places piano score over the pensive poster pose that also serves as the Blu-ray's cover art.

Warner sticks with their usual packaging, with a cardboard slipcover of the same artwork sliding over an eco-friendly blue keepcase. The only insert is the sheet holding directions and a code for the Digital HD UltraViolet.

Chris' (Bradley Cooper) harried phone calls from the action amidst gunfire do not put his wife at ease.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

American Sniper's outstanding performance at the box office elevates it to "not just a movie, but an event" status. As such, the reactions it provokes will be stronger and more extreme than they otherwise might have been. Some have accused the film of oversimplifying the War on Terror and glorifying a killer. Others have been grateful for its portrait of an accomplished military hero that doesn't gloss over the demons that come from duty. Either way, this is a substantial film that needs to be seen before being judged. Driven by a powerful, transformative lead performance, this suitably gripping tale does resonate in a different way than its contemporaries.

Warner's combo pack delivers the first-rate picture and sound you expect, plus an hour of meaty making-of featurettes. The lack of a commentary, deleted scenes, and more on the real Chris Kyle disappoints, but not enough to discourage a rental or purchase.

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Reviewed May 21, 2015.



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