Monday, December 29, 2014

American Sniper, The Gambler

American Sniper
The Gambler

War movies are not, as Daniel would say, my very favorite genre.

A filmmaker really has to show me something new in this category. That's exactly what Clint Eastwood does in "American Sniper," which uses Navy SEAL sureshot Chris Kyle's four tours in Iraq to elucidate Eastwood's defining theme: the mental damage that violent combat inflicts on its participants. The 84-year-old legend bookends a terrific year by following his first-class film of "Jersey Boys" with a picture that forces us to look into the sniper's sight and imagine making instantaneous life-and-death judgment calls.

A puffed-up Bradley Cooper plays Kyle, and for the first time gives a performance to which we in the audience can connect on an emotional level. Perhaps out of a sense of duty to Kyle and his legacy, Cooper finally allows himself to get lost in another human being and to find himself as an actor. No one would confuse Kyle with the sexiest man alive, and the effect of shedding those trappings is to liberate Cooper. The fetching Sienna Miller gives a solid performance as his wife Taya, though Jason Hall's script often requires her to express too directly the idea that Chris' mind stays in Iraq even when he returns home. I found some of the most effective scenes to be those in which Chris, back at home, flinches at the sound of a mechanic's drill or a neighbor's starting his lawnmower. But as a war movie, an extended rooftop shootout sequence culminating in a last-minute evacuation in a sandstorm yielding practically zero visibility is the most impressive in "American Sniper." It's something I haven't seen before: not the fog of war but the impenetrable and overpowering sand and wind of war. 

Some of the impact of "American Sniper" derives from the tragic and abrupt ending of Kyle's life story, and an image of Miller looking warily out her doorstep that I've thought back on several times in the days since I saw it. (It's a haunting depiction of the power of intuition.) The closing credit sequence Eastwood has chosen isn't as unique and special as the one he choreographed for "Jersey Boys," but it cast a solemn pall over the holiday audience at the Cinerama Dome. "American Sniper" benefits from Eastwood's trademark economy of storytelling and some memorable visuals (including a bullet we follow over a mile from Kyle's post to the head of his rival, a Syrian sharpshooter called Mustafa) to take its place in the pantheon of American war films.

I've often noted that writing classroom scenes (at any level of education) must be the hardest job in film, because almost all of them ring false. Exhibits 10,273 through 10,276: the teaching scenes of English Professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) in "The Gambler," a new remake of a James Toback picture. Rarely on film has an instructor said or done more things that no instructor has, would or even could in today's politically correct environment. (Brie Larson is largely wasted as Amy Phillips, a brilliant budding writer who hides in the fourth row of his classroom and eventually becomes his lover.) A national semifinal basketball game in which Bennett's student Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley), the team's star, accepts $150,000 to keep the margin of victory under eight points plays equally phony; the school is never identified and the uniforms on the band read "Band."

When director Rupert Wyatt takes Bennett off campus, though, the movie picks up, and by the end, to my surprise, I liked it. Wahlberg's hollowed-out and scarred-up Bennett embodies the term "degenerate gambler." Although his grandfather was one of California's wealthiest men, he was left nothing. He writes down the extent of his gambling debt on a piece of newspaper and hands it to his loaded mother (Jessica Lange), but does not even pretend to accede to her demand that he stop if she pays it off. He doesn't make promises he can't keep unless the other guy knows he can't keep them.

Even when he has no moves left, Bennett plays his creditors - the owner of a secret Malibu casino (Alvin Ing), a gangster (Michael Kenneth Williams), and a loan shark (John Goodman) - off against one another. Goodman is a national treasure. He just walks into any movie now - be it a great one ("Argo"), a good one ("Flight"), or a bad one ("Inside Llewyn Davis") and walks away with it. He's got some speeches here - including one about Somalis being too stupid to process that their country has no food - that had the audience roaring with laughter.

A friend who was a Vegas whale in a former life has explained to me that virtually all of the movie's gambling plot points are preposterous, from the young tennis phenom Bennett sends to make a six-figure sports bet that would never be laid to a two-bit Koreatown gambling hall that would never fade Bennett's final quarter-million-dollar wager on a roulette spin. Perhaps ignorance is bliss; I enjoyed these scenes. For Bennett, life itself is a martingale: you keep raising the stakes until you're broke or broken (or both). His version of the American dream comes down to two words: breaking even.

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