Wasted opportunities abound in Shooter, and for no good reason. The movie is quite plainly concerned with some of those base human appetites to which the cinema has proven so conducive over the ages — namely voyeurism and murderous violence — but mysteriously unconcerned with its own tendency to squander them.
Mark Wahlberg plays a Marine scout sniper named Bob Lee Swagger (no joke), who narrowly escapes a rough job in Africa and withdraws to a secluded cabin in the snowy homeland woods with only the company of his loyal, beer-fetching St. Bernard. Not that we don’t wish the guy a pleasant retirement, but, well, he’s still so young yet, and so talented with the killin’.
There will be other opportunities. Before long a team of Feds arrive with a peculiar job offer: They hope Swagger might consider applying his unique expertise to the planning of a presidential assassination. It’s a drill, of course, like when you hire hackers to improve your computer security by trying to break it. Only much deadlier. The Feds’ boss is Danny Glover, who lets his distinguished history of portraying corrupt officials and his gravelly whisper get across the idea that maybe this boss and his agency aren’t entirely above board. But does Bob Lee Swagger back down from a challenge? Well, what do you think? Semper fuckin’ Fi, dude.
Next thing you know, Bob Lee Swagger is public enemy No. 1, accused of actually gunning for the president and subject to a furious nationwide manhunt. What follows fits squarely—as in, no trace of hipness—into the vast continuum of thrillers about highly trained men on the run with something very important to prove. Think back on Three Days of the Condor, First Blood, Commando, The Fugitive, The Bourne Identity, et al, and you’ve probably already put more thought into the thing than screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin (The Devil’s Advocate) and director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), who here combine their already debatable talents perfunctorily. Lemkin shows little evidence of any literacy beyond a dim but fond memory of those similar thrillers from decades past and maybe a cram session with some sniper field manuals, neatly transcribed into the occasional highly expository speech. Fuqua just tries to keep up, or to keep the light low, as if hiding from his own movie.
Certainly blame doesn’t belong to Stephen Hunter, the author of the novel Point of Impact, on which Shooter is based. Hunter knows his subcultures of federal militarists and weapons enthusiasts, as he knows perfectly well how movies work; a longtime writer for the Washington Post, he won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism in 2003, and deserved it. He’d be wise, and lucky, to recuse himself from reviewing this one.
Of course there’s the matter of Wahlberg, always a companionable screen presence but still seeming somehow second-tier to the likes of Damon and DiCaprio. Here his Swagger convincingly compels an old partner’s girlfriend (Kate Mara) to nurse his wounds, befriends an affable and quick-witted FBI rookie (Michael Peña) and miraculously trains him as a sniper, and deftly executes the slo-mo strut that all movies like this seem to require of their stars. Still, something’s amiss. Fresh from the decorated Departed but Oscar-less himself, Wahlberg looks a little resigned in this picture, as if he’d said to himself, “Well, at least the Funky Bunch is long behind me now, and I know I’ve got a future in movies where lots of people get shot in the face. Lemme do another one of those.”
Sure, viewers who were frustrated by Jarhead’s nagging lack of action (which was, of course, the point) will finally have a sniper movie that’s not afraid to crack some skulls. That satisfaction wears off, though, as Shooter becomes too preoccupied with its precious plot to bother about anything else—like, you know, character. Then, grimly plodding along toward its too-far-off (and too-far-fetched) conclusion, it finally just gives up on itself. The movie is better off when not pretending some moralistic justification for its spurts of violence, but what’s worse is that the violence becomes unexciting anyway. Who’d have thought a shot could be lethal precisely because it was fired from so far out of range?