Director : Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay : Jonathan Lemkin (based on the novel Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : 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), Jonathan Walker (Louis Dobbler), Justin Louis (Howard Purnell), Tate Donovan (Russ Turner), Rade Serbedzija (Michael Sandor), Alan C. Peterson (Officer Stanley Timmons), Ned Beatty (Senator Charles F. Meachum)
With Shooter, Antoine Fuqua has officially become the master of politically confused action movies. You got a sense of it in one of his better films, Training Day (2001), which started out as a taut depiction of police corruption, but devolved by the end into an overwrought horrorshow of transparent evil. His follow-up, 2003’s Tears of the Sun, reveled in an uneasy mixture of liberal-hearted drama involving African genocide and reactionary action movie clichés; essentially, it was a blueprint for even bigger, more confused movies like Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond (2006).
Shooter falls right in the same line, giving us scorching political subtext about government and military corruption while also firing the audience’s Death Wishes with John Woo-style slow-motion shots of the protagonist strolling away from a massive explosion that has just capped his two-hour parade of judge-jury-executioner rampaging. The film drips hot-button words like “Abu Ghraib” and purports to call into question the way in which the military can all but take over the political process, but its answer to such problems is little more than the very violence it’s supposedly critiquing.
The soften-spoken, but heavy-gun-carrying protagonist is the aptly named Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg)--and doesn’t he ever--a Force Recon Marine sharpshooter who goes into self-imposed exile in the Colorado mountains after a mission-gone-wrong in Africa kills his spotter and best friend. Swagger is called back to duty by Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover), a high-ranking military hawk who wants him to stage a Presidential assassination in order to stop one. See, the military has intelligence suggesting that a sniper is going to pick off the President from a mile away, a shot of such difficulty and complexity that only a few men in the world could do it, Swagger being one of them. So, if Swagger would tell the military how he would do it, they would have a better idea of what they’re up against.
Of course, if you’ve seen the trailer for Shooter, you know that this is all just a set-up to frame Swagger for the assassination. Swagger doesn’t take too well to being blamed for others’ nefarious deeds, and despite being badly wounded, he escapes the scene and goes on the mend at the rural home of his spotter’s widow, Kate (Sarah Fenn). Meanwhile, a rookie FBI agent named Nick Memphis (Michael Peña) is convinced that Swagger was framed and sets about his own investigation to clear his name. Swagger, however, is less interested in clearing his name than bringing justice to the corrupt higher-ups who are responsible, which includes not only Colonel Johnson and his cronies, but also a smirking red state Senator (Ned Beatty) who describes Swagger as one of those “confused souls” who still thinks that “one man can make a difference.”
Beatty’s character is clearly not aware that he’s in a reactionary action movie where only noble lone men can make a difference. With various rifles, face paint, homemade explosives, and his impressive physique, Swagger goes about righting wrongs while evading his own capture; it’s like Hitchcock’s wrongly accused man got crossed with Rambo. And for once the rather bland persona Wahlberg tends to adopt whenever he plays a lead role works to his advantage. The blankness that usually makes Wahlberg deadly boring as a protagonist (see Rock Star, Planet of the Apes, The Truth About Charlie, etc.) gives Swagger a compelling ambiguity; you’re never entirely sure what’s in his head, although you’re never in doubt that he is absolutely, 100% serious. Thankfully, screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin (working from a novel by Stephen Hunter) had the good sense to throw in a couple of amusing, stone-faced one-liners to lighten the load.
Yet, when thinking back on Shooter, it’s impossible not to get snared in its political and ideological contradictions. Reactionary action movies often trade in political shadiness, yet they rarely if ever appear to take their political intrigue seriously (does anyone actually think that Rambo: First Blood Part II is in any way about the government covering up Vietnam-era MIAs?). Yet, Shooter seems to be quite serious about its depiction of government and military corruption, right down to its attempts to tie its highly fictionalized story to current shadiness in the Bush Administration. At the same time, though, Antoine Fuqua treats the film’s violence with such casual aplomb, both aesthetically and ideologically, that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. You’re left with a film that’s confused at best, downright schizophrenic at worst.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Paramount Vantage