March, 2007, Thriller

Directed by:Antoine Fuqua

Starring:Mark Wahlberg, Danny Glover, Ned Beatty, Michael Peña, Tate Donovan, Kate Mara, Rade Šerbedžija, and Mike Dopud

These are tough times for Bush’s neo-conservative Republicans; some of the party’s staunchest senators are now siding with their Democratic counterparts in Congress over a withdrawal strategy in Iraq, The FBI struggles to explain how it has misused powers granted under the Administration-sponsored Patriot Act, returning soldiers can’t even get adequate care at Walter Reed Hospital and Attorney General Gonzales continues to fumble his cover-up of the firing of 8 otherwise exemplary prosecuting attorneys on the Justice Department’s staff. The American public is confused, angry and looking for straight talk. Into that context comes this simplistic, polarizing take-no-prisoners Hollywood shootem’ up with a subtext that should give thoughtful members of the GOP real heartburn.

 Stephen Hunter, the Pulitzer Prize winning film critic for The Washington Post, moonlights as a novelist. In 1993, he published a violent thriller entitled Point of Impact, the first part of a trilogy featuring Bob Lee Swagger, a Vietnam veteran trained by the military as a combat sniper. Director Antoine Fuqua, (Training Day) screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin, (Red Planet) and an exceptionally dour Mark Wahlberg, (The Departed, The Italian Job) have updated Hunter’s character and portions of Impact’s plot to bluntly fashion this burly action movie which requires a hand-held calculator to keep track of the body count. High in blood splatter and low in nuance, this one’s a corn-fed paean to machismo and a sobering commentary on the state of America’s disillusionment with our federal government. 

Shooter’s explosive opening briskly outlines the details of a U.S. Army mission in Ethiopia gone bad for Swagger and his subsequent retirement from the military. But mysterious government agents soon recruit him to assist them in preventing an attempt on the president’s life by determining how such an effort might be planned and executed. Swagger reluctantly cooperates, only to be framed for an assissination that takes the life of an African dignitary standing next to the president at an outdoor ceremony in Philadelphia. Wounded and unarmed, Swagger flees from agent Nick Memphis, (Michael Pena) and a horde of his FBI colleagues, crisscrossing the country in an attempt to bring the real perpetrators to justice. Dispensing with such niceties as due process, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty and the right to a fair trial, Swagger deals with a cravenly duplicitous mercenary, (Danny Glover) a cold-blooded Russian assassin, (Rade Serbedzija) and a gleefully corrupt senator from Montana, (Ned Beatty) who ruminates on the current state of America’s role in the world while enriching himself at the public trough. Our hard-won civil liberties be damned; it’s difficult not to cheer Swagger’s relentless purge of the nation’s evildoers. 

There are few contemporary action directors who fashion atavistic heroes as compelling as those to be found in Fugua’s growing repertoire; whether it’s Denzel Washington’s corrupt cop in Training Day, Bruce Willis’ disillusioned combat officer in Tears of the Sun or Clive Owens’s de-mythologized ruler in an otherwise forgettable King Arthur, Fuqua envelops his leads in an aura of sensuous vitality that sexualizes the mayhem they create. At first glance, Wahlberg doesn’t seem to fit that bill physically; standing a handful of inches shy of 6 feet in height and sporting the male model’s physique he previously rented out to Calvin Klein for underwear ads, the actor doesn’t have the requisite heft normally associated with Swagger’s type of character, but as Wahlberg glumly blows up and guns down legions of faceless bad guys, (with ordinance often crafted from supplies available in any K-Mart) it’s hard not to be seduced by the character’s sheer ingenuity. Killer he may be, but such a crafty one that it’s far easier to root for his vigilantism than it should be.

Does Swagger really represent an emerging version of the all-American hero? That largely depends on your opinion of Shooter’s worldview: as enunciated by Senator Charles F. Meachum, (a gloriously mendacious Beatty) our government is simply a giant scam, crassly duping America’s citizens for the profit of a voraciously greedy elite who employ sinister networks of current and past government officials to manipulate global affairs. Given those assumed conditions, who wouldn’t want a Swagger to act as our surrogate avenging angel? Take the cynicism of Clint Eastwood’s cop in Dirty Harry, blend in a copious amount of the paranoia to be found in The Parallax View, sprinkle heavily with the right-wing blood lust present in the work of screenwriter/director John Milius, (Red Dawn, Conan The Barbarian) and you have, in Shooter, the gospel of peckerwood politics.

In a world where most of our citizenry cry out for reasoned judgment, respect for ethnic and cultural differences, the rule of law and the cautious use of force in international affairs comes Shooter’s insistence that only a Bob Lee Swagger can keep the forces of anarchy at bay. This is class warfare of a new and distinct stripe; patriotic blue-collar have-nots, tired of being manipulated by forces beyond their control and ready to blow holes through those deemed responsible for creating the mess we Americans find ourselves in. If that’s an apt description of the mindset of those who form the target audience for this movie, the Republicans really have their work cut out for them in 2008.

There’s no denying the visceral punch of Shooter’s commendable action sequences, but the movie’s paint-by-the numbers script provides caricatures rather than characters and the film’s simplistic political propaganda combine to make this one little more than a Special Forces recruiting tool for young men with sociopathic tendencies. 

The Verdict? Only for the most testosterone-prone among us.

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