The formulaic action movie set-up and payoff to the Ukrainian war drama “Sniper: The White Raven” feel like they belong in a completely different movie than the rest of this arty character study, which follows a Ukrainian sniper as he defends his country and processes the death of his wife.
Lead performer Pavlo Aldoshyn, who stars as Ukrainian rifleman Mykola, provides the sturdiest bridge between the movie’s interstitial scenes – lots of slate-grey and brownish-green fields and bunkers – and its direct-to-video-worthy revenge narrative.
Aldoshyn’s restrained performance and his character’s sadly topical background sometimes add resonance to the movie’s generally bland scenario, which was co-written by Mykola Voronin, director Marian Bushan and script doctor Linda Seger. But “Sniper: The White Raven” doesn’t really say or show anything that you couldn’t also get from various “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Missing in Action” rip-offs.
Bushan and his co-writers clearly want viewers to understand Mykola and his actions through the potentially complicating lenses of his faith, his grief and his military training. In the beginning, Mykola, a good-natured physics teacher and amateur “eco-settler,” tries to start a family with his frail partner Nastya (Maryna Koshkina) in a makeshift, environmentally friendly hovel.
Together, Mykola and Nastya sing songs, take open-air baths, enjoy pseudo-soulful shallow-focus sex and wear clothes that look home-made. Then a bunch of belligerent Russian militants stumble upon Mykola’s shack, misinterpret a sigil-like cluster of white stones that Mykola places outside his eco-hut (the stones look like a peace sign, but purportedly represent a raven’s claw) and then murder Nastya and burn their shelter down.
With nothing left to lose, Mykola then applies his angst to military training. In so doing, he defies the odds and mild disbelief of Ukrainian officers and fellow soldiers, like the paternal Cap (Andriy Mostrenko) and the mostly under-developed Klim (Roman Yasinovskyi). In one scene, Mykola insists that he can prepare and load a rifle in under 20 seconds while blindfolded. He pulls it off in 18 seconds.
Mykola then embeds himself in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine, wearing camouflage and armed with big guns and a small wooden fetish of Jesus Christ. (Or maybe it’s Mary Magdalene?) The message is clear: He misses his wife, he’s an efficient soldier.
Mykola also eventually gets his generically mandated revenge when he faces off with Sery (Oleg Drach), an equally qualified Russian sniper who inevitably kills one of Mykola’s fellow Ukrainian soldiers. Mykola and Sery stalk each other in a chemical plant, mostly because the filmmakers needed some narrative contrivance for two snipers to chase each other. (The Ukrainians would use explosives to get Sery, but he’s surrounded himself with hazardous chemicals and Ukrainian commanding officers fear a potential “environmental disaster.”)
There’s only so much room to reveal or even suggest about Mykola’s character. Aldoshyn plays his role with an appropriate stoicism; he vibrates behind cold eyes with an intensity that makes you want to invest in him. The rest of “Sniper: The White Raven” doesn’t get as deep into Mykola’s head or his world. There’s some hints that Mykola’s supposed to be defined by his inner strength and prevailing sense of both national and environmental responsibility. These ideas don’t go very far beyond an early scene involving a skeptical TV reporter, who half-heartedly interviews Mykola and Nastya about their unusual makeshift home, and a later conversation with Cap, who asks Mykola about his Christian statuette (“this is my…family…”).
Later, after a tragic and well-mounted skirmish ends with the death of a comrade, Mykola’s ordered to avenge his death by a superior officer who literally blows smoke in our grieving hero’s face. Mykola doesn’t respond emotively, but that’s also the point: There’s no crying on the battlefield.
Mykola’s climactic showdown with Sery, as well as a couple of other action-heavy set pieces, might sustain viewers’ interest throughout the movie’s otherwise underwhelming back half. Bushan toggles between crisp master shots and bracing hand-held photography in these scenes, and effectively draws viewers’ attention to action that’s either happening towards the back of the camera’s frame or lurking around various corners.
Aldoshyn doesn’t get to do much during these scenes, but he does simmer with intent. There’s also an unfortunate lag between action sequences since so much of the movie concerns Mykola’s gradual transformation from a quirky idealist to a hard-bitten soldier. He goes wherever he’s needed; he’s expected to carry a little too much baggage.
The rest of “Sniper: The White Raven” mistakenly relies on viewers’ acceptance of the touch-and-go pace of Mykola’s familiar story. He takes some time between serving his country and losing his loved ones, but never really seems affected beyond whatever feelings Aldoshyn’s repressing. If there’s anything specifically Ukrainian about Mykola’s actions, it’s not apparent from his inert and belabored journey from one bland story beat to the next.
So while “Sniper: The White Raven” sometimes delivers solid meat-and-potatoes action movie violence, the rest of the film only confirms the hellish nature of war, which we’ve all seen before.
“Sniper: The White Raven” opens in US theaters and on demand July 1.