I had pretty much given up on Clint Eastwood. Sure, he’ll always be a revered part of Hollywood lore (and deservedly so), but in the past few years, well… let’s just say his legacy has taken a couple dings; his recent directing efforts, including J. Edgar and Hereafter, ran the gamut from unwatchable to barely decent. So I went into his latest with more than a little trepidation.

It didn’t take long to realize, though, that rumors of Eastwood’s demise as a director were greatly exaggerated.

American Sniper chronicles the true story of SEAL Team member Chris Kyle, aptly nicknamed “Legend” by his fellow troops. Heralded as the most prolific (accomplished? deadly?) sniper in US military history, Kyle is reported to have single-handedly dispatched with 160 enemies during his four tours in the Iraq War. From the opening sequence, which presents his first recorded kill, though to a final firefight on a sandstorm-swept Iraq rooftop, the film accomplishes a rare trifecta—not only is it a gripping character study, but it’s also a harrowing account of life in a war zone and an honest commentary on the repercussions of combat.

At the heart of American Sniper is the almost unrecognizable Bradley Cooper, whose riveting portrayal of Kyle is as fascinating as any performance on screen in recent months. From his thick Texas accent to the 40-pound bulk-up, Cooper transformed himself into Kyle and gives us a multi-dimensional bit of acting brilliance that further cements his status as one of the best in the business.

Based on Kyle’s autobiography, Sniper’s layered screenplay comes courtesy of Jason Hall, who successfully atones for the egregious disaster that was his last script, 2013’s woeful Paranoia. Not content to just provide a “War is hell” look at life (and death) on the front lines, Hall makes sure to give equal time to Kyle’s private life with wife Taya (Sienna Miller), their kids, and the mental and physical toll that combat takes.

Eastwood has crafted a film that easily stands up with the likes of The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Paul Greengrass’ underrated Green Zone. It’s an expert bit of filmmaking that proves the ol’ fella may still have some fight left in him after all.

5/5 stars