A ’70s-style political conspiracy thriller outfitted with contempo action techno gear, “Shooter” is a brawny loner-against-a-duplicitous-government suspenser that asserts its own personality despite adherence to genre specifications. An immediately involving yarn of an ace Marine sharpshooter set up to take the fall for an attempted presidential assassination, pic saddles itself with stereotypical villains, hokey contrivances and too-expedient crisis solutions. But its skeptical, disillusioned take on big government and official deceptions should strike a vibrant chord with a wide range of audiences, as will the ample serving of dramatic just desserts, resulting in potent B.O. in all markets.
Among other things, “Shooter” provides one answer to the oft-asked question of who can replace the aging action stars of the ’80s and ’90s. Following up his tangy turn in “The Departed,” Mark Wahlberg easily fills shoes that once would have been worn by Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis. He’s got the focused determination, the street smarts and the bod; he’s aged enough now to have cast off the juvenile callowness, and as an actor he clearly understands the Gary Cooper principle that less is usually more for a stoical hero in such fare.
Adapting Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter’s novel “Point of Impact,” the first entry in a trilogy featuring military sniper Bob Lee Swagger, scenarist Jonathan Lemkin stirs in recognizable ingredients from “The Parallax View,” “The Day of the Jackal,” “Seven Days in May” and “Three Days of the Condor,” feeding on and encouraging suspicion of nefarious deeds and dastardly motives among men in high places.
In a nine-minute Horn of Africa prologue, Swagger (Wahlberg) is seen doing what he does best, picking off enemies from a great distance in a clandestine operation. When his partner is killed and opposition forces gather, however, the Marines clear out and abandon the marksman to fend for himself. It’s just the first of many occasions when he’ll be asked to do so, and never does the slightest doubt arise that he’ll be up to the task.
Three years later, Swagger is ensconced in a Wyoming mountain cabin with his dog and firearms; when he goes online to survey the day’s news and mutters, “Let’s see what lies they’re trying to sell us today,” it’s unclear whether he’s turned into Jeremiah Johnson or the Unabomber. But when a vaguely defined Washington insider, retired Col. Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover), comes to call, he soon finds Swagger’s Achilles heel: patriotism. Intelligence suggests the president is about to be the target of a long-distance assassination attempt, and Johnson insists only Swagger can deduce the would-be killer’s plans.
Cementing his appeal for audiences on the left and then the right, Swagger replies, “I don’t like the president much. I didn’t like the one before,” then reluctantly agrees to help, reconnoitering public places in D.C., Baltimore and Philly before deducing Independence Hall will be the location for the attack.
When the shooting goes awry and another official is killed, all fingers have been prearranged to point at Swagger, who slips through one tight spot after another with every cop in the country on his tail. Instructing the audience in diverse injury survival skills along the way, he eventually finds sanctuary at the old Kentucky home of his late buddy’s former g.f., Sarah (Kate Mara).
Sarah’s a lonely hottie, and her rather too extreme allure suddenly yanks focus to other matters. It also reps just the first of numerous improbabilities, among them Swagger’s ever-ready vigilance in the face of attack and the stock villainy of clandestine government nasties. Even after more than 40 years, a director should never put an evil, foreign-accented government schemer (played here by Rade Sherbedgia) into a wheelchair and expect not to summon unwanted comparisons to “Dr. Strangelove.” Likewise, Elias Koteas’ slimy goon all but drools when he gets his hands on Sarah, and Ned Beatty’s right-wing senator has in every way been made to resemble a certain vice president with questionable riflery skills.
All the same, Lemkin and helmer Antoine Fuqua have constructed such a taut tale around a man so unfairly scorned by his superiors that one can scarcely help but develop a deep rooting interest. Most crucial factor in the film’s success is the conception of the Swagger character; he represents the classic American individualist of the sort one sees less and less of both onscreen and in real life, a don’t-tread-on-me patriot, a cowboy loner who’s only dangerous when crossed. Anyone with a healthy libertarian streak will embrace the entirely non-partisan way Swagger takes on an overgrown political apparatus.
During a “One-Eyed Jacks”-like second act in which Swagger bides his time while recovering from injuries, centerstage is shared by young FBI agent Nick Memphis (Michael Pena). Memphis dares to question the party line on what went down in Independence Square, an attitude quietly encouraged by a sultry bureau cohort (Rhona Mitra).
Arriving in the middle of all this is a show-stopping one-scene cameo by Levon Helm as an aged Southern firearms expert who guides the hero through esoteric realms of ammunition history.
By the time it’s over, Swagger has taken down countless well-armed men in Ramboesque one-man-army style on his way to dealing with the big shots they protect. In any future Swagger installments, though, the bad guys will know better than to mess with his dog.
Fuqua and his team serve the action straight up, with no frills and a potent punch. British Columbian locations, including spectacular mountaintops in the Whistler area, stand in for settings as diverse as Montana and East Africa, although actual Philly and D.C. locations are used where they count. All behind-the-scenes contributions are strong.