Just because they’re really out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid. That thinking certainly applies to Bob Lee Swagger, the hero of Shooter, an off-key fugue of cabals and conspiracies. Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) is an innocent dupe, of course, but his story incarnates so many fantasies of governmental malignancy that what happens to him could be seen simply as the concoction of his own suspicious mind. A twist like that would’ve made Shooter a lot more interesting than it is; alas, the movie is all too literal-minded about its delusions.
Swagger is introduced a few years in the past as a supercompetent, Army-trained sniper massacring “hostiles” somewhere in or near Ethiopia—and then being abandoned by his evil superiors. He’s one of those guys who can set up his rifle in Mozambique, then fire a shot that ricochets off Venus and hits the exact center of the skull of a designated target in Beijing (but only if the wind is just right). Yet Swagger is too stupid—uh, that is, patriotic—to refuse when conniving Col. Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) arrives at his Wyoming hideout to recruit him for an urgent mission.
Johnson claims that a presidential assassination attempt is imminent; the feds need Swagger to reconnoiter Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, then explain how the hit will be done. The retired sniper completes his assignment perfectly, but when shots ring out in Philly, he discovers he’s been framed. Wounded and friendless, Swagger must escape the FBI and police, nurse himself back to health, deduce what happened, and take his revenge. Along the way, he picks up two allies: Sarah Fenn (Kate Mara), the widow of Swagger’s buddy who dies in the Ethiopia prologue, and fledgling FBI agent Nick Memphis (Michael Peña), who quickly realizes that his organization is involved in something untoward. The plot keeps twisting without delivering any notable surprises, and anyone who saw Wahlberg clean up at the end of The Departed can guess what happens in the final act.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, who made 2001’s overrated Training Day and 2004’s hilariously awful King Arthur, Shooter offers the standard quota of shootouts, car crashes, and exploding choppers. It’s concerned primarily with moving from one action set piece to the next and expends little effort selling the plausibility of events or characters. That’s workable for awhile, but by the time venal oil-state Sen. Charles Meachum (Ned Beatty) enters the narrative, the film loses its brainless charm. It doesn’t help that Fuqua encourages one-note performances: Glover and Beatty are both bad guys played badly, while Wahlberg, who can sparkle under sensitive direction, is merely glum and glummer. (What he learned in sniper school, apparently, was not to smile.) As for Peña and Mara, they might as well be wearing signs identifying them as colorless sidekicks.
Shooter was adapted from Point of Impact, a 1993 novel by Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter. I don’t read gun-lust erotica, but I did skim enough of the book—apologies to the 12th and E Barnes & Noble—to ascertain that scripter Jonathan Lemkin retained little of the book’s narrative and even less of its politics. The original Swagger is a Vietnam vet, with all that represents, while Wahlberg’s character seems too young to have fought in Gulf War I. Yet the movie doesn’t entirely forgo the ’70s. With its deep shadows and harsh colors, Shooter resembles such cynical thrillers as Night Moves and The Parallax View, and it attempts to be a glib update of their Watergate-era worldview. (The film also makes a few references to the JFK assassination, a ’60s trauma that darkened the following decade.) In addition, it dabbles in current events, as various characters impugn the feds for torture at Abu Ghraib and the lack of WMDs in Iraq—and laugh that an unnamed defense secretary had the audacity to go on TV and deny that the war was waged for oil.
Despite this vaguely leftist critique of the Bush administration, the movie’s dominant vibe hails from the ’80s backwoods, where the Posse Comitatus, the Branch Davidians, and other yahoos stockpiled weapons for the big showdown against the institution some of them called ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government). Swagger may be an Army-trained master killer, but Shooter mostly showcases not his way with high-tech ordnance but his survivalist skills: He improvises an effective medical treatment for bullet wounds and creates foolproof pipe bombs from stuff anyone can buy at Wal-Mart. Savvy and relentless, he’s the Second Amendment in motion, a one-man “well-regulated militia” who will veto corrupt officialdom with a bullet, but only if it’s foolish enough to come looking for him. In other words, Bob Lee Swagger is the worst enemy of a bankrupt American system—and no threat to it at all.