“Sniper” movies are a combat genre all their own thanks to the fatal attraction of the loners — usually two-person teams — who do the work, hit-men or women in uniform, a one-or-two-shooter “surgical strike.”
Many a first-person shooter video game has sniper characters. Check the Internet Movie Database out — scores of titles built around snipers, many of them spin-offs of a seminal Tom Berenger B-movie from the early ’90s — “Sniper.”
The Ukrainian thriller “Sniper: The White Raven,” hews to that Berenger/Billy Zane film’s formula, with its own Ukrainian twists. It’s built on vengeance, a lone shooter mowing down Russians and their in-country lackeys during the 2014 Russian invasion, and a present-day 2022 epilogue.
It’s based on the experiences of a real-life Ukrainian soldier, and unlike most any sniper movie you can think of, this time, we see how such super-shooters are selected and trained.
“Nobody likes snipers,” the hard-as-nails “Cap” (Andriy Mostrenko) growls to his recruits, in Ukrainian with English subtitles. “They are insidious and elegant.” They can kill with stealth and any number of weapons, none of them all that high-tech. Because “It’s not the rifle that makes a sniper. It’s intelligence and endurance.”
Aldoshyn Pavlo stars as Mykola, a hippie pacifist when we meet him, married to an artist (Maryna Koshkina) who is expecting their first child, living lightly on the land in a dugout house they built, using electricity from a windmill they installed. They’re cute and odd enough to make local TV in their corner of Donetsk.
Mykola bikes to work and teaches his disinterested students physics. But he gets their interest when he turns a punk’s spitballs into a lesson on the mathematics of velocity.
When tensions boil over after Ukraine removes its corrupt Russian puppet president, the stealth invasion begins. Mykola and wife Nastya are in the middle of nowhere, is a somewhat camouflaged house. They must be “spies,” the newly-unmasked Russians declare. One seriously rough-handling of the civilians later and she’s dead and he’s left for dead.
Ukrainian militia help with the burial, but they don’t trust the guy the locals nicknamed “Digger,” because of his dugout house, either. Mykola must convince them he’s no longer a pacifist, that he craves revenge. He will go by the code-name, “Raven,” he says, getting WAY ahead of himself.
The militia bootcamp training montage shows how little regard the officers and fellow recruits have for the long-haired teacher. But his math skills get him noticed when he raises his hand for the sniper recruiters.
Yeah kids, you’ve got to be able to do a lot of calculating when you’re choosing your shot.
“The White Raven” follows our grieving widower, toting his wife’s carved raven totem, into combat to carve fear on the black hearts of the enemy, one dead goon at a time.
Labeling sniper films “genre” pictures works because almost to a one — “Sniper” to “American Sniper,” Saving Private Ryan” to “Enemy at the Gates” — they all boil down to The Ultimate Test. There’s always “a shooter with talent,” as Barry Pepper’s character declares in “Private Ryan.” A sniper-vs-sniper duel is inevitable.
That said, Marian Bushan’s film does a splendid job with the preliminaries, doesn’t leave out the morality of having to shoot a familiar face, and doesn’t omit the consequences of mistakes.
The action climax is solid, tense and exciting. And if you’re wondering why Russian generals are as rare as white ravens, stick around for the coda.
Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity.
Cast: Pavlo Aldoshyn, Maryna Koshkina and Andriy Mostrenko
Credits: Directed by Marian Bushan, scripted by Marian Bushan and Mykola Voronin. A Well Go USA release.
Running time: 1:51