The sniper is one of the most interesting warriors in the history of combat. More assassins then soldiers, they rely on elaborate camouflage and stealth to achieve a single kill. I particularly recall one day when I was playing the Xbox game Halo against a friend where he managed to pin me down by getting to a high place and shooting me in the head every time I tried to charge his position. Eventually I managed to hit him with a very well placed rocket shot and take his position. When he respawned he immediately picked up another sniper rifle again and tried to pin me down again, this wasn’t happening, but he kept picking up the sniper rifle. Bored by the repetitive direction the game was taking I asked him: “why do you keep going for the sniper rifle?” He responded by saying “I like sniper rifles; they encourage cheap-ass-ism.”
Indeed sniping is really cheap, and in general it’s pretty hard to put a sniper fight on the screen. The 1993 film Sniper probably disappointed many with its less then Schwarzenegger level body count, but it managed to surprise more discerning audiences by being smarter, better written, and better acted then the average Reagan/Bush era action movie. The new film Shooter has action that is fairly successful but has an awful, uninspired script that anyone who’s seen a thriller will be a mile ahead of.
Mark Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger (no I’m not kidding) a retired marine sniper who has basically turned into a survivalist nut in the mountains after his partner was killed on a secret mission because the army pulled out rather then rescue them, proving once again the adage that you never want to share a bunker in a war movie with the guy who keeps a picture of his wife with him. He is visited by Danny Glover, a man in black type dude, who asks him to find out how to kill the president and report his findings so they’ll know how to stop an actual assassin who may come up with the same plan and kill the president at his next public appearance. As anyone who’s seen a shadowy government agency in a movie can tell, Swagger is being set up to be framed as the assassin. Swagger surprises them escapes, humiliating rookie FBI bystander Nick Memphis (another name I’m not making up) played by Michael Peña.
Memphis eventually becomes obsessed with the assassination and begins to uncover a conspiracy. Meanwhile Swagger decides to drive all the way from Philadelphia to Kentucky on the off chance that his old partner’s widow (Kate Mara), who he’d never met in person, would be able and willing to dress wounds he received during the assassination. Swagger must then uncover the identitiy of the true assassin in order to restore his name.
Antoine Fuqua is one of many seemingly talented directors who seem to have no idea how to find an intelligent script. Shooter is a stupid and formulaic action movie pretending to be an intelligent political thriller. The Bourne series, which this film desperately wants to emulate, is an excellent example of how this type of espionage man on the run type film can work well and still be thoughtful and character driven. This film however seems aimed at the people who read Soldier of Fortune magazine; its view of governmental corruption and conspiracy theorizing would make Oliver Stone blush. Aside from the politics this is a run of the mill “wrong man” formula.
Wahlberg’s acting seems to be on auto-pilot, there’s nothing wrong with it really, but nothing special either. Danny Glover and Ned Beatty are both fairly forgettable villains, and Michael Peña is fairly average. The real healingly bad performance comes from Kate Mara. In Mara’s defense, she is playing a poorly written role that serves no purpose in the story other then to provide a tacked on (and half assed) romance sub-plot, and to become a damsel in distress in the film’s pen-ultimate action scene. However she also has an absolutely horrible southern accent which brings the movie to a screeching halt whenever she’s on screen.
The action in Shooter does occasionally deliver. The film had the sense to go with an R-rating, which is important because it’s hard to show a sniper bullet hit without a decent blood splat. The action tries to look very real, but the things being done are very unrealistic. Case in point, in the opening scene we are shown a fairly realistic depiction of sniper tactics, the shooter is concealed by camouflage and relies on a spotter to tell him when to shoot, but later in the scene he shoots down a helicopter with a shot to the rotary blades, and act most videogames know is too stupid to be believable. Still, if you can get past the unreality, there are fairly enjoyable set pieces. These action scenes are why this film is somewhat worthwhile; the best of them are brutal and intense. The biggest of these, where Swagger and Memphis ambush an ambush at a country home serves as an excellent vehicle for some good shooting and at least three excellent explosions. Unfortunately this isn’t the finale of the film, as there are a handful of false endings before it does come to a close
Shooter is not good, but there are definitely movies made with greater incompetence. I wouldn’t recommend spending full price on this film, but it could be a decent way to kill two hours on a Saturday afternoon at matinee prices if there’s nothing else playing and you’re willing to overlook a lot in the name of escapism.
** out of four