The hero of Shooter, Antoine Fuqua’s libertarian action thriller, is the marvelously named Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg). That three-part name inevitably suggests a political assassin, but the ominous, Oswaldian “Lee” is safely confined between two irreproachably virile handles, the friendly-sounding “Bob” and the Eastwood-worthy “Swagger.” Similarly, Swagger’s power to do harm—he’s a former Marine sniper with world-class marksmanship skills, and he’s got a score to settle with the U.S. government—is kept in check by his innate sense of right and wrong. This character’s complexity is contained in his very name.
Which is a good thing, because there’s certainly not much complexity to be found in Jonathan Lemkin’s script, based on the novel Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter and directed by the man who made the notoriously unsubtle Training Day. Not that crudeness is necessarily a liability in this kind of movie: Napalm explosions speak louder than words, and a well-aimed rifle to the head can go a long way toward providing character motivation.
Though much of the action in Shooter is beautifully photographed, the movie’s force is as a blunt instrument of metaphor. Shooter is a video-game-fantasy version of the 2006 midterm elections, a howl of rage at the hypocrisy of the Bush presidency and the Iraq war (not that either is ever mentioned by name). The Dirty Harry-style villain in Shooter—the punk looking to make Bob Swagger’s day—is none other than the U.S. government, as embodied by an unctuous retired colonel (Danny Glover) and a Machiavellian senator from Montana (Ned Beatty). Beatty’s character—a ham-faced amateur hunter who’s quite frank about his allegiance to big money–can’t help but recall a certain Wyoming congressman turned vice president.
Glover’s Col. Johnson, now an operative for an organization so shady that, as one character explains, “it doesn’t even have initials,” shows up one day at the Grizzly Adams-style cottage where Swagger has holed up after leaving the Marines. It seems that when a secret sniper mission in Africa went wrong, Swagger’s buddy was killed, and he himself was deliberately left to die by the powers that be. As a result, he’s become the kind of crackpot who lives alone with his dog in Wyoming, cruising a social-change site like Znet.com and reading The 9/11 Commission Report in a log cabin decorated with flags. Swagger is neither a progressive nor a conservative: He’s a survivalist. Glover and his icky right-hand man (played with evil glee by Elias Koteas) pressure Swagger to use his expertise to help prevent a presidential assassination: If he were going to make the near-impossible shot, how would he do it?
Swagger’s righteousness—plus a satisfying practice shot at a Dinty Moore stew can placed at a distance of one mile—finally convinces him to scope out the suspected assassination site at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. But when the day of the president’s speech arrives, all hell breaks loose: The wrong guy dies, and Swagger finds himself framed for the attempted assassination of the president and the actual assassination of—well, you’ll see.
The rest of the movie is a Rambo-style hide-and-seek chase, as Swagger uses his special-ops training to treat his wounds with homemade IVs in gas-station bathrooms. Swagger seeks out Sarah Fenn (Kate Mara), the sexy-tough Southern widow of his former Marine buddy and the only person in the world that Swagger can trust with the truth (doesn’t the guy have a mother?). Eventually the two find one other ally, rookie FBI agent Nick Memphis (Michael Peña), who believes Swagger’s been set up—and pays for that belief in a Guantanamo-like scene of extreme interrogation.
Swagger kidnaps agent Memphis (but in a nice way!) and teaches him how to manufacture napalm and stop trusting people. Together, they pull off a Hardy Boys-style raid on the ranch of a legendary sharpshooter (Rade Sherbedgia, spouting the same indeterminately accented spy-speak that’s his specialty on 24). Helicopters crash, disguises are donned, and Levon Helm (the drummer from the Band!) does a fun cameo as a wizened gun expert. Eventually everyone finds themselves atop a glacier in a standoff straight out of Sergio Leone (if The Man With No Name wore winter camouflage instead of a poncho).
The movie’s final, bloody coda hammers home its strangely powerful and absolutely nihilistic political message: Everything sucks as much as it possibly can, and even if you’re named something as awesome as Bob Lee Swagger, there’s not much you can do about it. Swagger’s one-man attempt to clean up the streets of Washington is presented as a futile, almost symbolic gesture. The most he (and we) can expect is to satisfy our basest anti-establishment fantasy: to track down the bastards who got us into this mess and blow them the fuck away (to be replaced, presumably, by other bastards).
There’s no apparatus of justice in place at the end of this movie, no public stockade in which to shame the perpetrators of all the war crimes, cover-ups, and lies. There’s just a lone dude with his girl in a getaway car, leaving behind a pile of bodies. Swagger may be our hero, but he’s no savior. Challenged with the rhetorical question, “Do we allow America to be ruled by thugs?” he can only shrug: “Sure, some years we do.”