RATING |

If anyone out there still considers Bradley Cooper a lightweight, a pretty boy, a moderately talented dude whose comfort zone is bracketed by the rabid wackiness of David O. Russell's American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook, then take a look at American Sniper.

Even more so than the stoic Upstate New York cop Cooper played in 2012's underseen The Place Beyond the Pines (see it!), the actor's performance as Chris Kyle, the real-life Navy SEAL who recorded the most kills of any sniper in U.S. military history, resonates with unsettling power.

Directed with characteristic precision and economy by Clint Eastwood (OK, forget Jersey Boys), the film, adapted by Jason Hall from Kyle's autobiography, is a knot of complex strands. As we follow Kyle - a low-key, upright Texan who learned to shoot as a boy hunting with his dad - through his harrowing tours in Iraq, our connection never wavers. Crouched on rooftops, or rolling with sorties in Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, Kyle trains his sights on Iraqi men, women, and, yes, children who might pose a threat to the American patrols.

It's a spinning wheel of split-second calls: Is that woman carrying a bomb beneath her chador? Is that boy picking up a fallen insurgent's rocket launcher to train it on an Army humvee? Were any of the 160 confirmed deaths - out of the 255 probables credited to Kyle - unwarranted? Did every target he lined up in the crosshairs, and took down at ranges of 100 yards to a record 2,100, deserve to die?

And who is he to play God, even for the sake of protecting his comrades?

American Sniper, like Eastwood's 2006 World War II films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, captures the rattling adrenaline rush of battle, the visceral shock of close-quarters combat. Like those films, too, American Sniper is both a war movie and an antiwar movie.

Eastwood has never been easy to pin down on the politics of violence. Is he Dirty Harry's pro-gun wielder of justice, or the deeply ambivalent lawman chasing down a kidnapper in A Perfect World (in which another deadeye marksman, from the FBI, figures prominently), or the filmmaker posing profound questions about the reasons for and consequences of war in his aforementioned both-sides-now diptych? (Angelina Jolie, who starred in Eastwood's Changeling, could have used some of that balance in her directorial endeavor, the unrelenting Unbroken.)

Like Kyle himself, American Sniper falters when its hero returns Stateside. The trauma of his Iraq tours hangs with him, unnerves him, turning the relationship with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, who at least has more to do than in Foxcatcher), into a textbook illustration of the challenges facing veterans as they reenter society, and the routines of family life.

Beefed up and twanging like a true cowboy, Cooper nonetheless carries the full weight of his character's achievements - and the questions that come with them - as he tries to find his footing back on Texas soil. If American Sniper fails at being a truly great film, it is no fault of its star.

American Sniper *** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. With Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Running time: 2 hours, 12 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes).

Playing at: Area theaters.EndText

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@Steven_Rea