I caught Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter at a sneak preview, the security precautions for which were frankly more entertaining than the film itself. I had never heard of a film arriving in padlocked cans with the combinations sent to the theater a few hours before the screening, and I’ve been to screenings of things like Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) weeks before its actual release. The idea that Shooter is such hot property that it requires these heady precautions smacks a bit of wishful thinking. (Not to mention, a desperate film pirate would hardly waffle at a pair of bolt cutters.) Ah well, it added a bit of color to the film, I suppose.
Fact is, Shooter is a perfectly acceptable actioner that is laboring under the delusion that it’s something altogether more important, which perhaps explains why it’s a good 20 minutes too long and ends at least three times. It’s also one of those movies that takes a half hour just to arrive at a setup anyone who saw the trailer knew weeks or even months ago. Yes, we all know that Mark Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger (oughtn’t anyone with a name like that be a televangelist?), an expert marksman who is recruited against his better judgment to help the FBI thwart the assassination of the president. And we know that it’s all a dastardly plot to make him the fall guy. And we know he’s going to become a one-man army and bully, blast and bomb his way to exact his revenge, clear his name and make the world safe for democracy.
We know this, but the film, alas, does not. So after a pretty good—albeit cliché-a-poppin’—opening that explains why Bob Lee got soured on being a Marine and chose to live the life of a hermit in the woods with a dog for a companion that fetches him beer out of the fridge, it spins its wheels to get to the action. OK, so some of this stuff isn’t bad, and it uses part of the time to establish itself as something of a rara avis: a liberal-minded revenge fantasy. An interesting tone is set with little digs at the current administration and Bob Lee’s assertion that sometimes thugs do run the country despite government bigwig Col. Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) stating otherwise. But is it a tone that can really be supported by our hero’s later one-man army overkill? It might be acceptable—even gratifying in a guilty-pleasure manner—to see Bob Lee rampage his way through the actual bad guys, but when he starts blowing away whole battalions of soldiers who obviously aren’t in on the plot and who really do believe he tried to assassinate the president, the premise gets a little shaky.
For a movie that the creators want to think of as a “thinking man’s” actioner, very little thought seems to have been expended on some pretty basic questions of ethics. Maybe if someone had hired someone other than Jonathan Lemkin (his last credit was the dismal Red Planet in 2000) to write the thing … but they didn’t, so instead of the kind of “Syriana (2005) with explosions” that director Antoine Fuqua possibly envisioned, we get a pretentious Rambo movie with superior acting. And the film badly wants to be Syriana, all the way from its oil-fueled conspiracy plot, to its long-distance death-dealing, to its portrait of corruption so deeply embedded that we rely on its existence as much as we might decry it. Of course, that desire has to stop short of actually dropping the viewer into the abyss of helplessness, meaning that we get a hundred minutes of hopelessness snatched from the jaws of despair by 30 minutes of fantasy-fueled heroics.
Still, the acting—combined with the undeniable stylishness of Fuqua’s direction—does keep the film watchable and entertaining, while the extreme silliness of the overblown action makes it impossible to get very offended by the mayhem. It’s just too ridiculous to amount to anything more than fiery explosions and stuntmen being thrown through the air (Fuqua is smart enough only to personalize the deaths of the real villains). Indeed, as I said at the onset, the big problem is the film’s desire to be more than it is—while not alienating the core audience who came to see Wahlberg’s vengeful badassness—that makes the last stretch of the movie seem to go on forever. Otherwise, it’s an OK example of exploding cinema. Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke