Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) is a former US military sniper who quit after he was abandoned by his superiors while on an illegal mission in Ethiopia. His spotter (and best friend) was killed as they tried to escape. Now Swagger lives the survivalist lifestyle, alone in a mountain cabin, growing and shooting his food.
He's tracked down by Colonel Johnson (Danny Glover), a Pentagon official who's trying to stop an assassination attempt on the President. Johnson knows Swagger is one of the best marksmen alive and he wants him to use his expertise to figure out the most likely positions from where the assassin might take a shot. Swagger is initially reluctant but Johnson appeals to his patriotism and talks him around.
The job turns out to be a set-up and Swagger finds himself a patsy on the run, hunted by both the authorities and the conspirators who betrayed him. With help from the one FBI agent who believes him (Michael Peña) and from his dead spotter's beautiful widow (Kate Mara), he sets out to clear his name and expose the conspiracy.
It's good to see an old school, R-rated action thriller in cinemas, the kind of movie that used to fill multiplexes back in the eighties and nineties but is all too rare today. Unfortunately the retro fun doesn't last very long. Shooter is a very mediocre example of the genre. It's saddled with an unbelievable and hugely derivative script, an uncharismatic star and a tone that suggests we're actually supposed to be taking it seriously.
The best I can say about Shooter is that it starts well enough, it has a few decent action scenes and it looks good. The man behind the camera, Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Tears Of The Sun, King Arthur) is one of Hollywood's slickest action directors - he knows how to film helicopters exploding and hitmen getting riddled with bullets. What he can't do is pump life and excitement into a duff screenplay.
Although it's based on an original novel, Point Of Impact by Stephen Hunter, the first of a Bob Lee Swagger series, Shooter seems like a patchwork of ideas borrowed from popular action movies and TV shows, chiefly 24 but also The Fugitive, In The Line Of Fire, the early Steven Seagal films and even Rambo and Commando.
A disillusioned super-soldier brought out of retirement. A political assassination. A wrongly accused man on the run. A conspiracy within a US government agency. A hero who can take on waves of hitmen. A kidnapped heroine. A plucky minority sidekick. A bodycount in the dozens. There's nothing in this movie you haven't seen before. Michael Douglas' The Sentinel did most of it last year. 24 does all of it every week.
The hero is straight out of 24. Intense, ruthless and unstoppable, Bob Lee Swagger is Jack Bauer with a sniper rifle. The trouble is, while Kiefer Sutherland is frighteningly convincing in his role, Mark Wahlberg is not. No matter how good an actor he is or how much work he's done at the gym, it's impossible to take Wahlberg seriously as a one-man army capable of wiping out two dozen mercenaries in one scene alone.
It's impossible to take a lot of things seriously in Shooter. The plot is never credible even on a dumb action movie level. The good guys and the bad guys alike are constantly making stupid decisions that serve no purpose at all except to keep the plot in motion. That makes it very hard to care what happens next.
Choppy structuring and slack pacing don't help either. Although it runs over two hours, Shooter feels like it was edited down from a significantly longer film (Fuqua's last two movies, Tears Of The Sun and King Arthur both received longer director's cuts on DVD and I suspect so will this). The film skips through its plot so hurriedly at times, you're left wondering how it got from one point to another.
This editing hasn't put much energy into the movie. After a good opening battle and an exciting chase scene following the assassination, Shooter slows down and never picks up its momentum again. The plot from thereon in is too convoluted and incredible to get you involved. The story stops and starts. It doesn't build to a climax. In fact I counted four scenes I thought were the climax.
Like Sunshine, Shooter's biggest liability is a tone that demands you take it seriously. It's an earnest, indignant film that expects you to get worked up about the dreadful things its bad guys do. God help us, its creators may actually think they're making a political statement. And what is that statement exactly? That within the US government are cabals of sneering action movie villains? A decade ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger made a film called Eraser which concerned an almost identical conspiracy of corrupt politicians, government agents and corporate businessmen and he's the best known Republican in California - how radical can Shooter be?
Well, there's a dig at Donald Rumsfeld and in one scene Wahlberg mutters about government lies while the report of the 9/11 Commission lies prominently on the desk in front of him but mercifully the filmmakers leave it at that and spare us their theories on the World Trade Centre attacks.
Like other recent films that have tapped into the Michael Moore phenomenon and the anti-corporate / anti-Bush movement, Shooter forgets that Hollywood has been using sinister corporations and government agencies as handy bad guys for decades and it's now a hackneyed cliché. If action movies can be used as vehicles for political messages, they'll need to be re-invented first.
When the movie presents us with massacred African villagers to show us just how nasty its villains are, it's shocking but not in the way it's supposed to be - it's just a lapse of taste. Ethnic cleansing isn't suitable subject matter for a popcorn thriller. Since Antoine Fuqua obviously cares about the treatment of Africans, why doesn't he make a serious film on the topic rather than use it as an ugly plot device in multiplex fare like this and the Bruce Willis shoot-'em-up Tears Of The Sun?
Adding to the unpleasantness are a lot of cold-blooded murders committed by the hero and a totally unnecessary rape. The result is that Shooter isn't what you could call a fun evening at the pictures. Since it's too silly to be anything else, that leaves it without very much appeal or point.