“Shooter” is one of those action films with such an improbable plot that it begs you to find it ridiculous and laugh at it. It is a ridiculous film, but a strangely engaging one.
I have mentioned in the past that I am a fan of adrenaline filled action films, the type that made producer Joel Silver richer than God, and eagerly go to each, awaiting the next great “Lethal Weapon” or “Die Hard”. Well, “Shooter” is neither of these, but it is an acceptable stepping stone as we wait for that next great action extravaganza.
Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg, a subtle name for his character I might add), is a sharpshooter in the military, one of five or six men in the world that can make a shot from over a mile away. Apparently, women don’t factor into the equation. He and his partner, the spotter, are on a covert mission in Ethiopia when everything goes wrong. A number of years later, Swagger is living as much off the grid as possible in a small cabin out in the woods, with his faithful dog, Sam. One day, Colonel Johnson (Danny Glover) and his two assistants, arrive to enlist Swagger’s help. They have learned there will be an attempt on the life of the President of the United States. Their intelligence reports indicate the shooter will pick one of three of the President’s upcoming public speaking engagements. They want Swagger to help them identify where and how the assassin will strike. Swagger says ‘No’; he isn’t happy with his treatment after the Ethiopian incident or the government in particular. But he realizes he may be able to help and scouts the locations on his own before he realizes Philadelphia is the place. Johnson asks him to be present, to help identify the shooter’s location, and he agrees. But Swagger is framed for the assassination attempt and goes on the run. A rookie FBI agent, Nick Memphis (Michael Pena, “Crash”) gets involved and realizes there may be a conspiracy. Swagger runs and runs and finally arrives at the home of his ex-partner’s fiancée, Sarah (Kate Mara). Will Swagger be able to uncover the truth as he runs for his life?
Directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), “Shooter” is a film that goes to great lengths to make the story believable, but it is so filled with conspiracy and double crossing, that it just isn’t representative of how our government is run, so we ultimately can’t believe it. Must…. Stop… Typing these… Lies. Okay, I’m back. So, we all know the government is involved in some secret stuff that we probably don’t want to know about, any government, led by Democrats or Republicans, and “Shooter” does a good job of portraying this. But Swagger is akin to Superman, he eludes multiple government agencies, police forces, secret agencies, bullets seem to bounce off of him, and more. And this stretches the credibility of the story thin, so thin you can read a newspaper through it.
And the one thing that helps to ground the film and us, to keep us running from the theater laughing our heads off? Mark Wahlberg. The film sets up his skill level; we watch during his mission in Ethiopia, and many people testify to his great ability, so that is something we more or less accept as a given. He is, after all, one of only five or six men in the world who can make the shot. Apparently, women don’t have the trigger finger skills. At one point, he comments the government spent a lot of money training him how to stay alive. This is a throwaway moment, but it helps to partially explain how he is able to elude all of these people and stay alive. Again, this wouldn’t work so well without Wahlberg’s personality filling the role.
Wahlberg is not a great actor, but he has a winning personality and has the requisite charisma to hold our attention while he is on screen. As Swagger, he doesn’t have to emote a lot, but we feel his pain and frustration as he works his way through the situation. Throughout the years, there have been a number of actors who have gained a reputation as simply being themselves onscreen, earning a lot of money, as this given persona in the process. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and others all more or less appear on screen as themselves, or at least the persona they create for the public. Occasionally, they are able to reach further inside themselves and create a unique, unusual, more interesting character, something a little different. Clint Eastwood has been more successful in this regard, but his characters are always variations on a theme. I am not saying Wahlberg has achieved the same status as these icons of American cinema, but he is certainly on the path. He is, more or less, the same character in each of his films; the working class guy, soft spoken, who triumphs over adversity. The recent exception would be his work in Martin Scorcese’s “The Departed”, an award worthy performance. But I suspect Wahlberg will have a long and fruitful career appearing in a number of films such as “Shooter”. His mere presence, the soft spoken every man, helps to make Swagger seem real and allow us to have more sympathy for him.
Danny Glover is pretty good as the strange Colonel Johnson, who has a hand in many nefarious activities around the world. Glover wears a dental prosthetic throughout the film, it is clearly visible a few times, and causes him to slur and lisp quite a bit. It is quite strange to listen to Glover, playing this menacing “Colonel”, using this very strange method of speaking. Ultimately, this undermines the seriousness, the scariness of his character.
Michael Pena is also good as rookie FBI agent Nick Memphis. He shows his embarrassment at being overtaken by Swagger, his face plastered on the news. Then, when he realizes something is going on, his instincts kick in and he tries to solve the mystery. He continues to investigate, despite interference from the department and all of the obstacles placed in his way. Throughout the film, he shows the common sense we might all hope to have in the situations he faces, making his actions more believable.
Kate Mara adds less significance. She doesn’t even know Swagger when he shows up at her door and soon is involved in his plot to uncover the truth. She seems to be around to add a female presence, no matter how slight.
Ned Beatty makes an appearance as a very Dick Cheney-like Senator from Montana. He is good, but the performance is one note, which it should be. He is supposed to be crooked, evil and he is.
Director Fuqua has a good knack for action and handles most of the action scenes well. He presents the complicated stunts and maneuvers in an easy to follow way, keeping us on the edge of our seats for most of the film. But, as is the case with most of these extravaganzas, he has to keep ramping up the action. Once Swagger has taken out one guy, he then has to face three guys. Once he has faced three guys, he has to face a small squad of men with semi-automatics. Then, a whole helicopter battalion complete with missiles. And so on. If he only had to fight one guy after another, we would get bored. But on the other hand, because everything is required to escalate so quickly, Swagger also starts to appear infallible, further propagating the need for more and more elaborate and dangerous looking action sequences. After a while, it gets silly, and we become numb. Will he ever not be successful in a confrontation? When he walks through a wall of exploding bombs, we realize nothing will ever cause Swagger harm. This, of course, robs the film of suspense in the last, crucial act of the story.
“Shooter” is a fun action film, engaging because of Mark Wahlberg’s personality, and certainly worth the price of a bargain matinee.