by Jeff Meyers
Though he’s better known for his violent action novels, Stephen Hunter is also a no-nonsense Pulitzer-winning film critic for The Washington Post. His low tolerance for art-house violence and big-budget action have led to more than a few gleefully scathing reviews. Writing about the Bruce Willis blockbuster Armageddon, Hunter displays his everyman wit: "Watching it is like putting your head in a tin wash bucket while weightlifters whack it with golf clubs."
So, one inevitably wonders what Hunter will write about Shooter, the big screen adaptation of his regarded novel Point of Impact. Chances are journalistic integrity will demand that the review fall to another writer. A shame because it would be great to see him eviscerate this half-baked turkey.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Bob Lee Swagger, a reclusive marine sharpshooter who, after a mission gone wrong, retires to Wyoming to become a scraggly-bearded mountain man. In less time than you can utter Rambo meets The Fugitive, Danny Glover shows up asking Swagger to help prevent a presidential assassination. Recruited to map how he’d execute the commander-in-chief, Swagger deduces the best place and method only to (surprise) be set up. Wounded and pursued by the authorities, Marky Mark goes on the run while fresh-faced FBI agent Nick Memphis (Michael Pena) suspects things aren’t quite kosher. The two team up and with an arsenal of headshots and judo-chops, hunt both truth and bad guys … namely creepy Glover, greasy psychotic Elias Koteas and Ned Beatty as a Dick Cheney-like senator.
Director Antoine Fuqua proves again that Training Day was a fluke and he’s a filmmaker of limited means. Though the camerawork is often beautiful and the action is crisply staged, the tone of Shooter is schizophrenic at best. Mistaking paint-by-numbers politics for social relevancy, the film struggles to make its dopey action film conceits mean something. Fuqua was similarly misguided in Tears of the Sun (which, oddly, critic Hunter liked), trying to merge the ghastly political violence in Nigeria to a Bruce Willis shoot-’em-up.
Here, cars crash, things explode, and lots of helicopters zip about as Wahlberg eliminates his enemies without sweat. Fuqua clearly believes no plot hole too big for a sub-atomic explosion.
Shooter’s saving grace is the charisma of its two lead actors. They’re an entertaining contrast in laid-back styles: one stoic and manly, the other earnest and chipper. Wahlberg has intensity to spare, selling even his stupidest lines with conviction. He’s a good choice for an action hero, bringing a sense of gravity and underlying decency. Pena, who shined brightly in Crash, is charming as the laconic boy scout unwilling to let sleeping dogs lie. He turns a clichéd character into something watchable.
The supporting cast vacillates between hammy and blandly earnest. It’s as if they don’t know what kind of film they’re in. Only Levon Helm finds the right balance of nuttiness and menace as a conspiracy-obsessed ballistics expert. His line, "I still have the shovel," is the film’s best moment.
Ultimately, Shooter might best be summed by this mash-up of classic Hunter pan: "While the movie is stupid, it is — hooray, and let’s put this in all the national ads! — not appallingly stupid."