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Shooter (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 23 March 2007
Evidently, this movie of Stephen Hunter’s novel “Point of Impact” has been percolating over at Paramount for some 15 years, with the project passing from writer to writer (including scribes as prominent as William Goldman) and director to director. Jonathan Lemkin finally wrote a screenplay considered appropriate for filming; my guess is that he simplified almost everything, kept a rough outline of the plot, and made it all appropriate for the immediate present. Mark Wahlberg stars; the role isn’t remotely as challenging as his recent parts, especially his furious, righteous cop in “The Departed.” That got him a supporting actor Oscar nomination; his role in “Shooter” isn’t likely to produce similar results—not because Wahlberg is bad, but because there’s nothing very original or interesting about his character. What interest and originality are present is due to the actor, not the script.

Wahlberg is Bob Lee Swagger, a Marine scout sniper as the movie opens. In Ethiopia, he and his spotter are taking out bad guys from a long way off—Swagger has the latest equipment, and a true shooter’s eye. But when the spotter shows Bob Lee a photo of his fiancée, we know his minutes are numbered; sure enough, almost immediately the guy is killed—and the U.S. forces are responsible. Bob Lee immediately retires to Montana, where he lives a solitary existence with his loyal dog—another character who might as well have a “future victim” sign hanging around his neck.

Bob Lee is approached by retired Col. Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover), who needs Swagger’s help in planning a Presidential assassination. Johnson explains that they know there’s an assassination plot afoot, so they need to plan one of their own to know how the deed will be done. This peculiar but important preventive situation brings Swagger out of retirement.

In Philadelphia, the known site of the assassination attempt, he has figured out all the likely spots for a sniper to work from a concealing distance. But when the President makes his speech, a shot rings out—killing not the President, but the Ethiopian archbishop he’s introducing. No sooner has the victim toppled than Swagger realizes he’s being framed as the assassin.

Naturally, he flees, and he’s skilled enough that in a pretty good car chase in the streets of Philly, he evades his would-be captors/killers, and makes his way to the home of Sarah Fenn (Kate Mara), the former fiancée of Swagger’s spotter who was killed in Ethiopia. Most of the rest of the movie centers on their trying to evade Johnson’s men, out to kill Swagger and anyone else who gets in the way, and the story winds back to Montana. Swagger gets an unexpected ally in junior FBI agent Nick Memphis (Michael Peña), who has realized Swagger’s innocence, and that there’s a complicated conspiracy out to frame the fugitive shooter.
The movie’s biggest weakness is that underlying everything is a standardized conspiracy involving not just Johnson but chuckling, corrupt Senator Charles F. Meachum (Ned Beatty, who, as usual, is excellent). “The truth is what I say it is,” one of the bad guys proclaims, but the movie still ultimately endorses the status quo. The combination of the-system-still-works and an all-too-common conspiracy makes the film unimportant as anything like a criticism of government corruption. I doubt that many in the audience over the age of, say, 12 will not realize that as soon as Swagger is approached, he’s being set up as the fall guy for this conspiracy—which, of course, even connects back to what happened in Ethiopia.

The climax takes place on high, snowy peaks in Montana; it’s mostly well staged, but it’s also too clever for its own good—more than one sniper is involved, and I lost track of who was which, though it’s all sorted out by the end. The photography by Peter Menzies, Jr., is top-notch throughout, and the technical aspects are all standard studio-competent.

Wahlberg clearly takes his role seriously, but the script doesn’t provide much in the way of characterization, partly because the busy storyline doesn’t allow room for it, partly because the character is simply Action Hero once again. He’s a bit quicker on the uptake, as in a near-climactic confrontation that includes a somewhat dazed but efficient Agent Memphis. But there’s just very little there there, and Wahlberg has no opportunities to overcome these limitations.

Danny Glover is smooth, polished and menacing as turncoat Johnson, and Ned Beatty is fascinating and cheerfully corrupt as the bad-guy senator. Kate Mara is mostly along for the ride; her first scenes with Wahlberg have some content, but after that, she’s swept up in the action. So is the usually fine Elias Koteas, but Rade Serbedzija and Levon Helm are outstanding in their brief and briefer roles. (And Helm looks ancient.) But this is an action movie, not a drama; each scene serves efficiently as a jumping-off point for the next scene, right to the end of the movie.

So far, Antoine Fuqua has shown he can rise—or sink—to the level of the scripts he’s given. “Training Day” had an especially well-written script, and Fuqua brought out all its values. But “King Arthur” had a pointlessly busy script with broadly-drawn characters, and Fuqua couldn’t make the movie any better than the script was.

All in all, though, “Shooter” is a clean-limbed, well-paced action thriller; you’re likely to forget it half an hour after leaving the theater (or, in a few months’ time, turning off the TV), but you’re likely to enjoy yourself while watching it.

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