Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg), a retired U.S. Marine Corps sniper/marksman living by himself out in the mountains of Wyoming, finds unwelcome guests at his doorstep. Their leader, Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover), steps forward and asks Swagger to help with a national security matter. Johnson and his men have good intel that the U.S. president will be assassinated at one of three locations, Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Most of the details (the who, the why) of the plot are still unknown, but Johnson hopes to intercept and capture the assassin before he strikes. With the assassin in their custody, they’ll be one step closer to identifying who wants to kill the president.
Swagger hesitates at first, but relents when Johnson appeals to his bruised sense of patriotism. Swagger travels to each city, plots every potential move a trained sniper would make, and settles on one city as the likely location. A double cross follows almost immediately, leaving Swagger with two bullet holes and the combined might of state and federal law enforcement agents in pursuit. While fleeing, Swagger is forced to disarm a junior FBI agent, Nick Memphis (Michael Peña). Swagger flees southwest, eventually contacting his best friend’s widow, Sarah Fenn (Kate Mara), for help. As the manhunt intensifies, Memphis begins to suspect that Swagger was, in fact, framed. Memphis turns to a more experienced colleague, Alourdes Galindo (Rhona Mitra), for assistance.
Adapted by Jonathan Lemkin (Lethal Weapon 4, The Devil’s Advocate) from Stephen Hunter’s novel (“Point of Impact”), Shooter tries hard to be topical, even as it hits every familiar action hero plot point. With its conspiracy storyline centered on corrupt politicians, specifically a slimy, six-term senator from Senator Charles F. Meachum (Ned Beatty), the equally corrupt and greedy military-industrial-complex, amoral military contractors, and an oil pipeline, someone, somewhere thought it wise and profitable to revive 1970s-style pessimism and cynicism (e.g., Winter Kills, All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View). Shooter also borrows freely from contemporary events as background for its straightforward double-chase/wronged man formula. Alfred Hitchcock first put the formula in motion seventy-two years ago with The Thirty-Nine Steps. He perfected that formula twenty-nine years later with North by Northwest.
There’s one other film, though, that Shooter resembles closely, one that most moviegoers have probably forgotten, 1997's Most Wanted, starring and written by Keenan Ivory Wayans and directed by David Hogan, who’s other major directing credit is Barb Wire (a Pamela Sue Anderson feature). The storylines are surprisingly similar, with one important difference: Shooter switches the race of the hero and the villain. In Shooter, the hero is an All-American (read: white) soldier from the South. In Most Wanted, the hero was African-American, but otherwise similar (i.e., an ex-soldier, dedicated, loyal, the best at he does, etc.). In both films, it’s the hero’s unwillingness to compromise his beliefs or ethics that cause him an infinite amount of grief. Following the action hero template, the heroes in both cases have to prove themselves by their selfless actions, but also by their near-superhuman ability to withstand extreme amounts of physical pain (sometimes torture).
Similarities aside, Shooter is superior to Most Wanted, though, and it's certainly not because of the unoriginal, contrived storyline, but because Wahlberg uses his charisma and screen presence to make us forget, if only temporarily, that Shooter doesn’t make much sense. The FBI is portrayed as a collection of simple-minded, unquestioning bureaucrats. Only a Latino junior agent and a woman, members of traditionally disenfranchised groups, sift through the evidence to discover question-raising inconsistencies. Whatever that might say about the FBI and like-minded government agencies, Lemkin and Hunter obviously saw a need to give the junior FBI agent some detecting to do and give Swagger a sidekick.
Then too there’s Antoine Fuqua's steady direction. Fuqua can handle big action scenes and small intimate scenes with (almost) equal dexterity, a rare skill among directors who specialize in the action genre (e.g., Tony Scott, Michael Bay). Fuqua may cut inside a scene as quickly as Scott and Bay do, but he never lets a scene devolve into incoherence, something they both do with regularity. Like Wahlberg’s performance, though, Fuqua’s direction can only take us so far. Once we give the storyline more than a cursory thought, it falls apart into ridiculousness of the highest order, with plot holes and contradictions everywhere you look.
© Mel Valentin, 23rd March, 2007
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