Master Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Beckett (Berenger), Force Reconnaissance Marine, an experienced sniper, and his spotter, Cpl. Papich (Aden Young), are on a mission to assassinate a Panamanian rebel leader in the jungle. Because they are extracted in daylight instead of at night, Papich is killed by a sniper. Beckett runs back under fire to carry Papich's body to the helicopter.
Later, Beckett is paired up with an inexperienced civilian, Richard Miller (Zane), to eliminate a rebel general financed by a Colombian drug lord. Miller is a SWAT team sharpshooter, with no combat experience or confirmed kills to his name. While on the way to the staging area, Miller's helicopter is attacked by a guerrilla, and several members of the crew are killed. Miller is unable to take out the attacker; instead, the chopper's dying gunner makes the kill, but the co-pilot believes Miller made the crucial shot, earning Miller a false reputation.
On the mission, Beckett insists on deviating from the plan that Miller was given. This, together with the fact that Miller has no experience or aptitude for jungle operations, sparks friction between the two. Early on, they encounter a group of Indians, who agree to lead them past the rebel guerrillas, in return for a favor: they must agree to eliminate El Cirujano ("The Surgeon"), an ex-CIA agent and expert in torture who has been aiding the rebels. Beckett agrees to do so.
Uncertain of Miller's reliability and skeptical about his "kill" while aboard the helicopter, he tells Miller to kill El Cirujano in order to prove himself. However, when the time comes, Miller fails again by first firing a "warning shot," followed by a shot at Cirujano's head. Cirujano is able to dodge the head shot by ducking under it into the river in which he has been swimming. In the ensuing firefight with the alarmed guerrillas, one of the Indians is killed. Although the Indians do not directly blame either Beckett or Miller, they withdraw further help.
En route to the target, they realize they are being followed. They head to a village to contact their informant, a priest, only to find that he has been tortured and murdered by Alvarez's men well before they arrived. Beckett speculates out loud that it is the work of El Cirujano, calling into question Miller's credibility. That night, Beckett marks their track to bait the follower - the sniper that killed Papich - into a trap and uses Miller as bait to pull the sniper out of hiding to take him out.
The two men finally reach the general's hacienda. While waiting for their targets to emerge, they find Cirujano to be alive after all. Miller isn't hidden very well, and is spotted by one of the guards trying to sneak up on Miller. Beckett kills Miller's attacker while Miller takes out the drug lord. Having had to save Miller's life instead of killing the general, Beckett insists on going back to take out the general. Miller's refusal leads to an exchange of fire between Beckett and Miller. Miller ceases when running out of ammunition and breaks down mentally afterward.
As rebels close in on the two, Beckett attempts to provide cover fire for Miller. Seeing himself outnumbered, he surrenders to rebels and knowing that Miller is watching, he stealthily ejects a round from the chamber of his rifle while holding it up, then drops the bullet on the ground; Miller picks it after Beckett is taken away.
With nighttime approaching, Miller goes to the extraction site, but instead of boarding the helicopter, he heads to the base camp, where he kills the general with his knife. He finds Beckett being tortured by El Cirujano, who has cut off the trigger finger of Beckett's right hand. Beckett spots Miller in the distance and uses a ploy to both distract Cirujano and mouth Miller instruction to kill both of them with one shot. Instead, Miller sticks to "one shot, one kill" and shoots Cirujano in the head. The two run to the helicopter for extraction, and Beckett once again saves Miller's life: using his left hand, he shoots an ambushing sniper. The final scene shows Beckett and Miller on the way back home.Tom Berenger as MGySgt. Thomas Beckett
Billy Zane as Richard Miller
J. T. Walsh as Chester van Damme
Aden Young as Cpl. Doug Papich
Ken Radley as El Cirujano
Frederick Miragliotta as General Miguel Alavarez
Billy Zane was cast after his starring role in Dead Calm raised his profile. Director Luis Llosa, who grew up watching American films, called modern films "cartoonish and antiseptic" in their depiction of violence; he said that he wanted to bring back a sense of impact to killing. It was shot in Queensland, Australia.
Sniper was held back from release in 1992. It debuted at number two at the box office on January 29, 1993, in 1551 theaters and went on to gross $18,994,653 in the US. TriStar released it on VHS in August 1993, LaserDisc in September 1993, and on DVD in October 1998.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 42% of twelve surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating was 4.7/10. Roger Ebert rated it 3/4 stars and wrote, "Sniper expresses a cool competence that is a pleasure to watch. It isn't a particularly original film, but what it does, it does well." Variety called it "an expertly directed, yet ultimately unsatisfying psychological thriller" that is "undermined by underdeveloped characters and pedestrian dialogue." Vincent Canby of The New York Times described it as "partly a badly choreographed action drama and partly a psychological exploration of Beckett's mind, which comes up empty."
Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times called it a shallow film that does not explore the themes suggested by the script and instead turns into a bloodless, macho video game. Clifford Terry of the Chicago Tribune called it a formulaic male-bonding drama that features a Hollywood odd-coupling. Richard Harrington of the Washington Post criticized the lack of character progression and the implausible conclusion.
Stephen Wigler of The Baltimore Sun called it a "poorly written, badly directed film" that substitutes violence for sex. Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle rated it 3.5/5 stars and wrote, "Sniper does little that's terribly original but that which it does, it does with great competence and grace."
Sniper spawned six sequels: Sniper 2 in 2003, Sniper 3 in 2004, Sniper: Reloaded in 2011, Sniper: Legacy in 2014, Sniper: Ghost Shooter in 2016 and Sniper: Ultimate Kill in 2017. Reloaded, Ghost Shooter and Ultimate Kill features Billy Zane's role of Richard Miller from the first Sniper film reprised, having himself become a sniper following his Panamanian tour experience with Thomas Beckett.