Every age, it seems, gets the assassination thriller it deserves. In the seventies, when the country had witnessed a spate of political killings and was mired in Watergate, there was Alan Pakula’s cannily paranoid “The Parallax View,” clever, cynical and deeply unnerving. Today Hollywood is clearly incapable of that sort of sophistication. So instead we’re given Antoine Fuqua’s “Shooter,” a very silly actioner that, in the Tom Clancy mode, teaches us that there’s no problem of government corruption so grave that a single honest man can’t solve it—not (as in “All the President’s Men,” or even “Three Days of the Condor”) by revealing the truth to the public but simply by exterminating the villains. It’s a feel-good celebration of political vigilantism, rather like “Death Wish” transposed to the Washington scene. As such it’s blithely irresponsible from any sort of serious perspective. But even worse, it’s a failure as a pure adrenaline-pumper. Curiously sluggish, it’s high on hardware but low on excitement.
The tenor of the piece is telegraphed by the name of the hero—Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg), a moniker than might even have made Sylvester Stallone blush in his Rambo days. He’s an ex-military sniper, so disillusioned by the death of his spotter during a mission in Africa in which the two of them were left out to die that he retreats from the world into a remote mountain region where he lives as a recluse with his ever-so-loyal dog. His splendid isolation is disturbed by the arrival of creepy CIA agent Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover), who lures Swagger out of retirement for an emergency mission: an assassination plot against the president has been discovered, and he’s asked to scope out the potential sites, using his specialist marksman knowledge to determine where and when the attempt will be made so that it can be averted. Things, of course, do not go as planned. A bullet does find its victim, and for reasons it wouldn’t be fair to reveal here, Swagger finds himself on the run, accused of firing the shot himself, and he has to use all his smarts to uncover the real villains. His only assistance comes from the widow of his dead spotter (Kate Mara) and a callow young FBI agent (Michael Pena) who won’t accept the official explanations for what happened. (The name given to the latter character—Nick Memphis—isn’t quite as bad as Bob Lee Swagger, but it comes close.)
Along the way to a conclusion knee-deep in political and economic corruption, “Shooter” works through a chain of scenes involving chicanery within Washington’s inner sanctums suggesting the existence of an amoral shadow government within the state, periodically interrupted by military action sequences so over-the-top that they can be explained only by secret private armies lurking behind every corner in the country. Unfortunately, in the first instance the material is intellectually simpleminded, and in the second the staging isn’t good enough to really get the blood pumping. Some of the plot turns are breathtakingly absurd—apparently it takes Swagger about ten seconds to turn Memphis into an ace shooter, too—and others, like a visit to an elderly ballistics expert, are really nothing but crude jokes on the American penchant for conspiracy theories. But the movie takes such theories seriously, too: Ned Beatty shows up late in the game to deliver a monologue on the way things really work in the world that’s apparently intended to be a modern repetition of his famous rant to Peter Finch as the CEO in “Network.” But it’s nowhere near as penetrating, because the dialogue in the earlier instance was by Paddy Chayefsky, while here it’s by Jonathan Lemkin. There’s no contest. Nor was it wise to make one of the villains a wheelchair-bound fellow with a heavy accent; you half-expect him to stand up at some point and shout, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” It’s another comparison that’s not a happy one.
“Shooter,” in fact, is not an especially beneficial exercise for anyone involved. It doesn’t show off any special aptitude on Fuqua’s part for choreographing splashy action moments. It fails to persuade us that Wahlberg can really carry a big action flick. It’s pretty much an embarrassment for Glover, whose only hint of characterization comes from a sibilant delivery of his lines. It accentuates rather than concealing Pena’s amateurish acting. It invites Beatty to posture and declaim overmuch. And though it’s decently photographed by Peter Menzies, Jr., the editing by Conrad Buff and Eric Sears, which drags the narrative out to well over two hours, sabotages the effect.
All of which means that it turns out to be a sad experience of the audience, too. “Shooter” could serve, one supposes, as a useful recruitment tool for militias, who might take its comic-book “Trust No One” attitude and apparent glorification of taking matters into your own hands as a confirmation of their own dark suspicions and perhaps darker intentions. Or perhaps one can enjoy it as a take-off of the “Rambo” genre. But as a piece of empty-headed action entertainment, it misses the target by a wide margin.