(Movie review by John C. Ford) Not many people are in a mood to thank the Administration these days, but the makers of “Shooter” probably are. Stephen Hunter’s cinema-ready thriller novel about a master Vietnam sniper, under appreciated by both his country and his government, languished in Hollywood’s development hell for a dozen years. A great force, indeed, would be needed to get a stalled production process going after that amount of time. Enter the Iraq War. And a pile of government scandals. And all manner of skullduggery by corporations with political ties. And voila, the national mood is right for a pulp story about a disaffected veteran who gives the Charles Bronson vigilante treatment to the U.S. government itself. Mission Accomplished, as somebody said.
In the movie version, sniper Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) performs his Marine Corps duties on an African “peacekeeping” mission rather than in Vietnam. From an Ethiopian mountainside, Swagger takes out several hostile forces before he gets spotted — at which point he receives less support from his superiors than a veteran in a molding Walter Reed Hospital room. Literally left for dead, Swagger makes it out, but not before enemy fire turns his partner into red polka dots.
Three years later, a gaggle of CIA-types approach Swagger at his Wyoming cabin — where he broods over his betrayal in the company of a loving dog and muckraking journals — with a request that he help them prevent a suspected assassination attempt on the President. Of course Swagger complies, and of course none of this is what it seems. And of course, when the assassination attempt happens, Swagger gets pinned for it and finds himself the subject of a nationwide manhunt.
Although huge chunks of plot have been discarded from the novel, “Shooter” still labors to get through its downsized story in two hours. It huffs, it puffs, and it tosses questions of logic and character motivation aside like cups of Gatorade from a sweating distance runner. Why is Swagger saving the life of that government agent? Why would he gather that evidence against the bad guys, only to destroy it? And could you really burn a piece of electronics like that…in a mound of snow? There’s no time to explain, man! Sorry! Huff, huff, puff…
Of course, even if we don’t know precisely how or why, say, a military-style battle is going down at a Virginia ranch, we can forgive it if enough flames are bursting through the screen to torch our narrative quandaries. And on that score — the flames, the bullets, the black tails of smoke from free-falling helicopters — “Shooter” doesn’t hold back. Not a bit.
But what we can’t forgive in a thriller is a bad villain. Which gets us to the sad issue of Danny Glover (“Lethal Weapon”) — or, rather, Danny Glover’s character. Glover’s turn as a Colonel-gone-bad is an object lesson in miscasting. Despite Glover’s acting talent, it is difficult to see any menace in a man who exudes goodness from every pore. And when he whispers the lines of this criminally underwritten character in a fragile, raspy voice — with something like braces on his teeth, no less — we feel much more periodontal pity than fear.
Glover’s accomplice, another military man gone to the dark side (Elias Koteas), doesn’t work any better. For his “characterization,” the filmmakers just slapped him with the International Bad Guy Signs — a five o’clock shadow and a suit from wardrobe at the Sopranos lot — and called it a day. Huff, huff, puff…
Wahlberg would seem better suited to his role, a macho sniper of few words, and indeed he is. But the part requires the actor to wield his calm like a gun, a la Clint Eastwood, and Wahlberg’s silence does not carry enough heft. Even his muscles seem to be cut more from the frothy pages of Maxim than an old-time gym. Though his puffed up form makes him look like an action star, Wahlberg has been better served by roles that play on his light, approachable nature, like the part he nailed in “Boogie Nights.”
The most approachable character in “Shooter” is a bumbling, naive FBI agent played by Michael Pena, who steals every scene in which he appears. Which is not particularly difficult, considering that his FBI cohorts have to deliver lines like, “You are asking questions way above your pay grade!” Then, presumably, they trot off to arrest somebody on felony counts of Clich’s in Screenwriting.
But whatever its problems, “Shooter” ends with a serious, serious bang. Three days after seeing the movie, I’m still shaken…and don’t know what to make of it. In the final minutes, Bob Lee Swagger dishes out a plate of astoundingly cold vengeance on the powers that tried to use him. Swagger tramples, trounces, and spits on the rules of good behavior that our fictional heroes have long abided. It’s shocking — and thrilling — to see them broken with such wrathful fury.
History will judge whether or not the making of this middling thriller is the greatest benefit that can be claimed from the war in Iraq, but it’s difficult to imagine the ending to “Shooter” being filmed without the frustrations of that present conflict as a backdrop. And somewhere, buried inside this pop entertainment, is a fascinating statement on America’s attitude towards its government. A statement about what it means to be a patriot, a dissident, or both. A statement about how greed wins out in America. A statement about what you do with your rage at the corruptive forces that spring like weeds from power.
On its surface, “Shooter” gives only the movie answer: you waste ’em.
Antoine Fuqua (director) / Jonathan Lemkin (screenplay), Stephen Hunter (novel)
CAST: Mark Wahlberg … Bob Lee Swagger
Michael Peña … Nick Memphis
Danny Glover … Colonel Isaac Johnson
Kate Mara … Sarah Fenn
Elias Koteas … Jack Payne
Rhona Mitra … Alourdes Galindo