With its incredible power to kill targets from impossible distances, the sniper rifle is one of the most terrifying inventions of modern warfare. Many movies have featured suspenseful or stylish scenes of snipers in action, but only a few manage to memorably showcase the sheer cinematic impact of the powerful weapon.
10. JFK (1991)
Oliver Stone’s provocative 1991 drama is a look at the investigation of district attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) as he attempts to uncover the truth behind the assassination of President Kennedy. Although it’s a brief scene in the courtroom drama, Stone recreates the assassination by splicing real footage (including the Zapruder film) with the dramatized possibility of multiple shooters. It’s a tense, expertly edited scene which perfectly captures the confusion and panic of that fateful day in 1963.
9. Jarhead (2005)
Although its story concerns a group of young soldiers fighting in the Gulf War, Jarhead is far from a typical war movie. Protagonist Anthony Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) aimlessly enlists in the Marines instead of going to college and he finds himself in the Scout Sniper unit. Although he is deployed in the Persian Gulf, Swofford sees little action and spends most of his time frustrated at base. When he is finally given a combat mission to kill an Iraqi high-ranking officer, he relishes the opportunity. However, the mission is aborted as Swofford is literally lining up his shot, and he explodes in anger that his one moment of action is taken away from him at the last second. It’s easy to picture a very different scene if the characters were infantry and not scout snipers. A rookie infantry soldier would likely be relieved that they didn’t have to take the order and kill a person face to face, but having a sniper rifle presents not only a literal distance between the shooter and the target, but a moral one too. Whether they are using drones, aircraft or sniper rifles, Jarhead shows the disconnected attitude felt by some soldiers, and it’s an interesting examination of the moral complexities of modern warfare.
8. Blue Caprice (2013)
Blue Caprice is an unflinching look at the Beltway sniper attacks from 2002. The movie follows John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo in the run-up to their attacks which killed ten people in the Washington D.C. area. It’s a smart, close-up examination of what drives people into committing these random acts of violence, but the movie is always firmly grounded in reality and the filmmakers don’t make the story exploitative or overly dramatic. Although it’s easy to feel sympathy for Lee given his rough upbringing (although, to its credit, the film never forces this), John’s thought processes and motivations are much harder to read. The fact that these types of killings can be sparked for no real reason is uncomfortable, and the filmmaker’s reluctance to jump to any far-fetched conclusions makes the movie all the more disturbing. Blue Caprice is an interesting contrast to movies which glamorise sniper killings and it shows just how unnerving the thought of these long-distance weapons can be in the wrong hands.
7. Phone Booth (2002)
Phone Booth is an ambitious, high concept movie which takes place almost entirely in one place. A mysterious, unseen sniper (voiced by Keifer Sutherland) traps sketchy publicist Stu (played by Colin Farrel) in a phone booth and taunts him down the phone line. There are no dramatic shootouts as the movie completely relies on the terror threatened by the sniper. It’s a snappy, fast-paced thriller which demonstrates just how terrifying it is to be in the sights of an unseen, omnipresent attacker.
6. Two-Minute Warning (1976)
Clearly inspired by the tense, suspenseful atmospheres of 70s paranoia movies like The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor, Two-Minute Warning is an underrated sniper thriller starring Charlton Heston. Padded out with smaller character stories and the ensemble of a big-budget disaster movie, the simple plot concerns a mysterious sniper who is perched from a high vantage point at a busy football stadium. Fearing a riot from fans if they openly engage the sniper, the police plan to wait for the last two minutes of the game before they move in. However, constant scenes of the sniper scanning the crowd through his scope wrack up the movie’s tension and it seems inevitable that he will just start picking off random targets before the police have a chance. The movie uses plenty of first-person shots (one lengthy scene shows his hands dismantling and concealing the rifle) and these help build up an unsettling, voyeuristic mood. Two-Minute Warning is also surprisingly prescient. Some critics at the time unfairly panned the movie because it didn’t give the sniper any background or motivation for his lone killing spree, but this has proven to be a fairly common scenario in recent times.
5. Shooter (2007)
Shooter borrows plenty of clichés from the action movie handbook. A retired marksman living in exile is called in for one last job which inevitably goes wrong and he gets in over his head. Of course, the movie takes certain liberties when it comes to realism, but some of the many action sequences show just how helpless the most trained and expectant soldiers are when they are being attacked by a long-distance sniper. The film’s snow-packed finale is fairly simple and understated by action movie standards, but seeing the bad guys getting picked off one by one (complete with exploding heads and dismembered limbs) from afar is about as satisfying and entertaining as it gets.
4. Day of the Jackal (1973)
Few movie assassins are as cool and collected as The Jackal from the 70s thriller Day of the Jackal. In one of the movie’s most iconic scenes, The Jackal (played by Edward Fox) ‘tests’ his mercury-tipped hollow bullets by shooting at melons from his custom built sniper rifle. The melons explode from the expanding force of the bullets and The Jackal seems content that their power will suffice for his planned assassination of the French president. The scene was considerably ‘upped’ in the 1997 remake ‘The Jackal’ as Bruce Willis’ take on the legendary assassin uses an automated, mini-cannon for target practice, but it lacks the low-key, menacing threat of the original movie.
3. Sniper (1993)
Sniper is a lean and effective action movie set around the lives of covert soldiers who trek through inhospitable terrains and wait for hours, even days, for the sake of one shot. Although Sniper is far from realistic and it suffers from the same formula found in most 90s action films, it does give surprising insight into the ‘lone gunman’ attitude of snipers and even offers up some psychological exploration of these secretive soldiers. However, the less said about the movie’s straight-to-video sequels the better.
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Although not strictly a sniper movie, World War II epic Saving Private Ryan prominently features sharpshooter Jackson (played by Barry Pepper) from Tom Hanks’ squad of soldiers. In one of the movies tensest scenes, a hidden German sniper tries to draw out the American squad by downing one of the soldiers in the middle of a street. The rest of the squad are forced to huddle and hide as the dying soldier (played by Vin Diesel) lies on the floor bleeding and emotionally reciting a letter from his father. Jackson takes the opportunity to slowly advance on the German sniper and take his position. The German sniper scans the rubble and sees Jackson in his scopes, but as he does so he sees the rifle’s muzzle flare followed by the delayed noise of the gunshot. The German sniper’s scope explodes from the bullet and his eye pops from the remarkable shot. Although marksmen enthusiasts still argue about whether such a shot is possible (TV show Mythbusters even dedicated a segment to it), it is still one of the most iconic sniper scenes in movie history.
1. Enemy at the Gates (2001)
The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest confrontations in modern warfare and the prolonged, stalemate fight for control of the capital resulted in most of the Russian city being reduced to rubble. Among these ruins a legendary fight was fought between Soviet sniper Vassili Zaitsev and German sniper Erwin König, and this ‘sniper’s duel’ is the subject of the 2001 war movie Enemy at the Gates. Zaitsev (played by Jude Law) kills many German soldiers and officers from near-impossible distances as he hides in the ruins of the fallen city, but the highlight of the movie is his cat and mouse fight with König (played by Ed Harris). Over the course of several days, the two men lay in wait for each other and attempt to draw the enemy soldier out, but their sheer determination and resolve makes it a gripping, suspenseful game of patience and skill.