A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, R, 124 mins.
Bob Lee Swagger: Mark Wahlberg / Col. Isaac Johnson: Danny Glover / Nick Memphis: Michael Pena / Sarah Fenn: Kate Mara / Jack Payne: Elias Koteas / Louis Dobbler: Jonathan Walker / Sen. Charles Meachum: Ned Beatty / Russ Turner: Tate Donovan
Directed by Antoine Fuqua / Written by Jonathan Lemkin / Based on the novel by Stephen Hunter
SHOOTER is one of those new-age action-films that tries to infuse some soul-searching and topical messages amidst all of its endless carnage and violence.
In its case: High-ranking political stooges that reside in vague and mysterious positions exert a lot of amoral power and use that power to exploit others to achieve their end game.
Gee, thanks for the ethics lesson.
I say that all with a not-so-subtle hint of sarcasm, because SHOOTER is an efficiently and competently made exercise in action and mayhem, but a real bore when it comes to saying something about the modern world we live in. I think the film’s problem is that it frames its action story around a conspiracy that – for the most part – is not very interesting or thrilling. The film could have worked far more efficiently if it decided to run with one of two possible choices: (a) be a thoughtful and inquisitive political thriller about a potential conspiracy involving the assassination of a world leader or (b) be a cat n’ mouse action saga, ala FIRST BLOOD, where the innocent hero is hounded by the authorities, but outfoxes them at every turn.
SHOOTER does a decent job with the more RAMBO-esque aspects of its storyline. As a matter of fact, the film could have vaguely been made into the fourth film in Sylvester Stallone’s once lucrative franchise. SHOOTER’s hero, like Stallone’s Vietnam vet, is a disgruntled killing machine that once fought for the country that he believed in until his country turned a blind eye on him in the middle of war. SHOOTER’s protagonist is also a one-man killing machine, who is able to effortless disarm multiple opponents with stunning lethality. Finally – and much like FIRST BLOOD – the hero in SHOOTER is a man wanted and hunted down by the law for crimes he’s not directly responsible for. However, he is able to effectively escape capture and be one step ahead of them at every turn.
SHOOTER could have been better as a straight ode to 1980’s mindless action films, but it simply tries too hard with its political leanings and yearns to speak on themes that no one will find invigorating. SHOOTER wants to be an effective hybrid of TV’s 24 with the wanton, excessive violence and action of RAMBO, but even RAMBO knew that its core audience cared more about bullets flying and enemies being mowed down first and heavy-handed, White House corruption second. In a way, SHOOTER comes off as a bit more brainless than it should have been. It wants to be so smart in its political leanings, but with its hard-core-R rated set pieces, it’s really more about mayhem than messages. Oh, but the film tells us that you should never trust anyone in political power because they are, at their core, evil.
The film is based on a 1993 novel called POINT OF IMPACT by Stephen Hunter. Whether or not the film is rigidly faithful or not is something I cannot comment on, but – at face value – SHOOTER is a film with routine storytelling and even more annoyingly routine stock characters. We have the highly resourceful and deadly hero that has to prove himself innocent when everyone thinks his undeniably guilty. We also have the pseudo-love interest that will support the hero and help him at every turn when she should logically have no motivation at all to assist him. We also have a “good” rookie government figure that works inside the corrupt establishment, is ostracized by his peers, but secretly works with the hero to help prove his innocence. And finally, we have the vile, reprehensible, and detached villains that will use their political might to defeat the hero, attain global domination, and make a hellovalotta money. SHOOTER has types, but no fleshed out personas, which makes it harder to care. Oh, it does delineate them well: Heroes = good. Villains = bad.
At least the formulaic hero is played by a likeable actor. Mark Wahlberg (who again demonstrates how not to follow up an Oscar nominated turn in a great film) plays the unintentionally-hilariously named Bob Lee Swagger. At the beginning of the film we see Swagger as a Special Ops sharpshooter that appears to be the best in the world at his job. While on a tour of duty in Ethiopia, things go disastrously astray and he barely escapes out of the situation alive. His friend and partner is not so lucky and dies under horrific circumstance.
Flash forward three years (the title card says “36 months”…why 36 months…who knows?) and Swagger lives a life of solitude in an undisclosed wilderness. He is a bitter man who distrusts his government for their actions in Ethiopia. One day a military Colonel named Isaac Johnson (played by the gravel voiced Danny Glover, who sure looks like he’s getting too old to play these parts) shows up at his door with his “helper” Jack Payne (the great Elias Koteas, criminally underused here).
Bob Lee does not like company, but the Colonel has an opportunity for him to once again serve his duty and to protect his country. He tells the former sniper that “Intel” has been leaked of a possible assassination attempt on the President that could occur in three possible cities in the next few weeks. Understanding that Bob Lee is possibly the best sharpshooter in the world, the Colonel wants to hire him so that he can assist him with planning the assassination….sort of. They want him to plot out a possible scenario that he would employ if he were to kill the president so that they can – in turn – help to stop the real killer.
Bob Lee begrudgingly agrees, and he subsequently goes to the major cities in question and begins to do some recon work. Soon, he finds himself in the city of Brotherly Love thinking that he is saving the President’s life. Unfortunately, a botched assassination attempt occurs and he is actually framed for it. In pure Richard Kimble-ian fashion – and with two bullets in him from a dirty cop who tried to stop him – Bob Lee narrowly escapes and is on the run. Of course, films like this (and last year’s misfire, THE SENTINEL) prove that no matter how large the manhunt, the hero can easily out-maneuver and escape all law enforcement officials.
Alas, the hero is not completely on his own. He manages to find two allies in the most unique places. First, he seeks out Sarah (played by the gorgeous Kate Mara), who was the wife of his buddy that was killed in Ethiopia. Now, why would Sarah want to help a man she barely knows and that the TV has been labeling as a guilty political assassin? Beat’s me. She just instinctively trusts Bob Lee, maybe because he’s played by the muscle bound Mark Wahlberg and that he looks good with his shirt off. Nevertheless, she is unwavering in her willingness to assist him, which is one of the film’s laughable weaknesses.
The other film’s equally laughable characters comes in the form of a rookie FBI agent named Nick Memphis, played by the usually decent Michael Pena. At first, Memphis is such a wet-behind-the-ears agent that it would take an absolute miracle to make this man capable of even helping a man like Swagger. However, convenient scripts like SHOOTER instantly turn this man into a one-man FBI army that is able to discover the vast and broad conspiracy to kill the President. I am not sure which is more of a howler, the fact that Pena is so quickly transformed from a dorky doofus into a sly, suspicious, and resourceful agent or the fact that he is able to piece things together via a free internet connection at a nearby coffee shop.
On some modest levels, SHOOTER does deliver on its promises, namely to be a gung-ho, macho, exciting action spectacular with bullets flying, bad guys getting machine-gunned down, and many large explosions to be had. The director, Antoine Fuqua, is no stranger to the action genre, and he is able to blow things – and people – up really, really good in this film. The violence in the film deservedly earns its R-rating and many of the kill shots have an almost voyeuristic obsession. Unfortunately, as the film unwinds to a shaky conclusion, SHOOTER becomes more about mindless spectacle to the point where when it tries to be a meditation on governmental conspiracy and corruption, we simply just clue out.
Mark Wahlberg is appropriately cast here as the typical, Herculean army figure that is good at killing and just as good at using household items to close gun shot wounds. Beyond looking tough and chiseled, Wahlberg is not given much more to do here. Kate Mara is amazingly easy on the eyes, but her character lacks realism and plausible motivation and becomes just window dressing. The villains of the film are walking cardboard cutouts, some of which are not developed well at all. Danny Glover has some nice moments where he commands the screen with the requisite level of ooze and disdain for his fellow man, but he’s on autopilot with a marginal role. Ned Beatty even manages to show up a vindictive and rotten-to-the-core US Senator that becomes such an over-acting caricature that he never once appears threatening or scary. Now, if he were played by Christopher Walken…then…maybe.
Antoine Fuqua’s SHOOTER wants to be a tough-as-nails FIRST BLOOD clone mixed in with the political sensibilities and intrigue of a 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR. The film is a reticent achievement in the action arena, but a flaccid and flimsy success as a would-be relevant and intriguing corruption thriller. In terms of being faithful to the canon of revenge-fuelled and gratuitously violent action pictures of the late 70’s and early 80’s, SHOOTER can be viewed as an enjoyable – but highly disposable – work. However, when it tries too earnestly to be a diatribe about dirty and two-faced governmental brass that like to abuse the common citizen, then SHOOTER lacks conviction and interest. If anything, I consider SHOOTER sort of a RAMBO-lite for the disgruntled Dubya generation. It’s high on bloodletting, but even more annoyingly high on pompous sermonizing.