Thursday, March 22, 2007
Having secured a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Departed, perhaps Mark Wahlberg will stop overcompensating. You can appreciate his uphill battle to be taken seriously as an actor, having to live down his early career fronting Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, not to mention the underwear modeling.
Since Boogie Nights and Three Kings, Wahlberg has established himself as a reliable performer of all-American guys, tough enough to be two-fisted action heroes but innocent enough for comedic roles. Nevertheless, he often acts like he’s got something to prove about his manhood, from portraying the super-endowed Dirk Diggler to the gay-baiting tough guy in Four Brothers.
In Shooter, his character’s name practically drips testosterone: Bob Lee Swagger. As an expert marksman for covert government missions, he’s forever toting the biggest, longest guns imaginable. After Shooter’s prologue, we find him in the American mountains, standing against backdrops of fir trees and mighty peaks, with a loyal dog that can fetch him Budweiser from the fridge. (Really.)
Shooter’s strongest aspects probably derive from its origins in Stephen Hunter’s novel, Point of Impact. The writers have done their homework on sniper craft, with convincing details about ballistics and marksmanship. The first scenes, a mission in Africa, feature Swagger taking aim at potential “hostiles” while his spotter relays such variables as wind speed.
Swagger may be almost supernaturally effective at turning distant combatants’ heads into red mist, but director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) conveys how long-distance gunplay is more than just point and shoot.
Later, Swagger’s living in Marlboro Man seclusion when the mysterious Col. Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) recruits him to help avert a potential presidential assassination, which may involve a sniper shooting from a mile away. Swagger scopes out the most likely sites for kill shots but discovers, too late, that he’s being set up as the fall guy in a complex murder and cover-up. Cleverly, the conspirator’s cover story also features both a fake media hero and a bumbling scapegoat, the latter being junior FBI agent Nick Memphis (Michael Peña), who loses his gun to the fugitive Swagger, but increasingly believes him to be innocent.
As Swagger, Wahlberg affirms that he’s no chameleon who disappears into roles, but more of a “presence” who plays the same basic persona with minor modulations. In Shooter, he fares best in scenes without dialogue, dressing gunshot wounds on the run or assembling makeshift IVs. If we ever need, say, another Charles Bronson, he’d be a better candidate than any former wrestler.
Unfortunately, Shooter matches every canny observation and bit of taut storytelling with eye-rolling lapses, including miraculous escapes from the nationwide manhunt. When he preaches the value of keeping cover, we can’t imagine why he makes daring escapades through open spaces in broad daylight. If Fuqua’s camera can shoot him so well, so could the death squads on his tail.
Shooter relies on so many clichés that you can cherry-pick your pet peeves. He finds an ally in a deceased buddy’s girlfriend (Kate Mara), a third-grade teacher in Kentucky who drawls lines such as, “It ain’t much, but it shoots true.” Because, being a Southerner, she can’t possibly speak proper English. Maybe she teaches Holly Hunter impersonation classes.
Like seemingly every political thriller of the Vietnam/Watergate era, Shooter features compromised, untouchable forces in the US government who betray the hero and mislead the public. The genre espouses an almost all-consuming suspicion of elected officials and the military-industrial complex.
When Ned Beatty, as US senator, makes speeches about how there are “no Democrats or Republicans, just haves and have-nots,” the film seems to echo—or plagiarize—the actor’s nearly identical sermon from Network.
A flag-saluting patriot who also opposes such a corrupt system, Swagger makes increasingly unconvincing choices about how to fight his powerful enemies. Shooter’s themes about citizenship become less and less coherent, until it seems to espouse a kind of free-floating anarchy seemingly identical to the bad guys’ might-makes-right ethos.
SHOOTER ( * ½ )
Directed by Antoine Fuqua. • Starring Mark Wahlberg and Michael Peña. • R, 124 min. • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.