Sunday, March 25, 2007

REVIEW: Shooter

What would happen if "24" and "Fahrenheit 9-11" had a baby? The answer would probably look a lot like "Shooter," a combination political-conspiracy-thriller/action-movie that's just slightly more schizoid than even it's genre-description would imply. It's protagonist - a former Marine scout-sniper living all Jeremiah Johnson in a mountain cabin far from Big Brother's eyes with just his beers, his gun collection and loyal hunting dog to keep him company - is practically a walking right-wing cartoon fetish doll; but he finds himself the hero of a conspiracy plot - involving Big Oil, private military contractors and corrupt Red State senators - that plays out like a DailyKos rant. Imagine the "300" Spartans showing up in Seattle to protest the World Bank and you'll get a pretty good picture of what an odd animal "Shooter" becomes when viewed through the politically-aware lense it frequent asks us to apply.

Yet, it works. Partially, it's because it's wisely willing to meet each of it's seemingly-incompatible "selves" at their most gonzo (within reason) extreme (hero striding toward camera flanked by massive American Flag in slo-mo? Check! Eeeeeevil greedy-capitalist baddies cackling ghoulishly over brandy and cigars? Check!) without a hint of tiresome irony. But mostly it's because it has the good fortune to star Mark Whalberg, a natural for this kind of role if there ever was one; and to have been directed by Antoine Fuqua, the criminally underrated action specialist (think Michael Bay, but with a functional grasp of subtlety) behind "Tears of The Sun" and "Training Day."

Whalberg is Bob Lee Swagger, the aforementioned reclusive master sniper. Uneasily goaded via some patriotic nerve-touching back into service to help pre-thwart a presidential assassination (Swagger: "I don't like the President. Didn't like the last one, either."), he finds himself framed for the murder of an Ethiopian diplomat by a shadowy government/mercenary/Big-Oil conspiracy. Nearly murdered in the process and now on the run from literally the entire law enforcement community, he enlists the aid of a sympathetic FBI rookie (Michael Pena) and an old service buddy's widow (Kate Mara) and sets out to take down the conspirators personally.

Depending on your politics, you're either going to nod your head, shake your fist or shrug your shoulder's at the film's central maguffin, but whatever your reaction it'll likely be coupled with a bipartisan eyeroll at how overly-simple yet overly-convoluted it actually is. But the "what" isn't really especially important here, since this is an old-fashioned Boy Versus The World hero quest and all the twists and bumps are nakedly just there to give Whalberg's Swagger a narrative to operate in. What's important is staging inventive-but-plausible action scenes around the hero's various special skills - particularly his vaunted marksmanship and ability to turn a wholesale store shopping spree into a one-man-army arsenal - and Fuqua executes this with grand expertise. As a bit of a bonus, there's some fun with improvisational medicine (my showing's audience cheered at the revelation of Swagger's "home" substitute for anesthetic) and a standout sequence of the Marine-trained hero making mincemeat out of a crack team of hired mercenaries (come to think of it, the scene and the film could both be accuratelt described as "Rambo vs. Blackwater.")

The film hit's some missteps when it comes time to lay out the "who's" and the "what's" of it's larger premise and veers too often into speechifying and exposition. Ned Beatty has some fun as a slimeball senator, but he and the rest of the heavies finally have little else to do other than sneer at the good guys and yuk it up over how fun it is being powerful and connected. The film is eventually lacking a central "heavy" to match Whalberg outside of the vaguely-defined enemy of "The System," though at least the screenplay knows enough to acknowledge this and work it into the overall theme: "You don't get it," one character scolds Swagger late in the game, "There's no 'head' to cut off."

But it's definately a good time watching him try.