Just when it looked like Mark Wahlberg was heading toward serious drama in things like "Invincible" and "The Departed" (for which the Academy nominated him for a Best Supporting Actor award), he returned to an old-fashioned action thriller in 2007's "Shooter." Well, it could have been worse. He could have gone back to apes.
"Shooter" is a conspiracy theory, espionage, chase, and revenge picture all rolled into one. Think of "The Parallax View," "Three Days of the Condor," "JFK," "The Day of the Jackal," "North By Northwest," and "The Fugitive"; this film shamelessly borrows from the best, and while it isn't as good as any of these I mentioned, it does move along at a commendable pace and with at least a modicum of excitement, thanks to its director, Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "Tears of the Sun"), and its star.
You've seen the plot before, but it doesn't matter, as long as you like shoot-em-ups. This one has plenty of shooting and things blowing up to keep one from falling asleep. So, Wahlberg plays USMC Gunnery Sgt. Bob Lee Swagger (get used to the names; they're all pretty corny), an expert marksman and a counterintelligence expert. I think that means he can kill anybody within a radius of two-hundred yards with his left hand and a toothpick. When the film opens, Bob Lee is in Ethiopia on a covert military operation, acting as a sniper, watching his partner get shot, then being left behind by his superiors. Because he's a one-man army, he fights his way through, returns to the States, and retires from the Marine Corps. Three years later, we find him alone in a wilderness cabin on a mountaintop, content to live with a dog and a laptop.
Enter Col. Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover), a CIA operative who wants Swagger "to plan a Presidential assassination," the idea being to help the government stop such an attempt on the President's life, if such a case ever arose. Coincidentally, says Johnson, the CIA has gotten word that just such a plot is about to unfold, and they need Swagger's expert advice. They even want him as a spotter at the scene of the President's speech in Philadelphia, in case of trouble. Reluctantly, Swagger agrees.
Well, you can see a mile away what's coming. An assassin doesn't kill the President but he gets the Archbishop of Ethiopia, standing next to the President, instead, and guess on whom Johnson's team places the blame? Yep, they make Swagger the fall guy; they frame him for the murder. Before long, they've wounded Swagger, and he's running from the combined forces of the local police and the entire U.S. Government. The rest of the film is basically a chase, with Bob Lee trying to hide, protect himself, and clear his name.
Plot loopholes? You bet. From this point on, the exaggerations pile on fast. For starters, there's the longest car wash on the planet. Then Swagger does a "Fugitive" number, diving off a pier, in an automobile yet! After that there's the most implausible pursuit on film, with Bob Lee outrunning and outfoxing about 800 police cars and helicopters, to say nothing of his out-fighting and out-maneuvering every cop and FBI agent who stumbles across him. Later in the movie, he defeats what appears to be a small army almost by himself. Amazing what people in the movies can do.
I was also a little concerned about the body count in the film. Most of the people Swagger kills in his attempt to redeem himself are innocent fighting men doing their job. Of course, the filmmakers don't want the audience to think about that, but, frankly, there are only about three bad guys in the film and the rest of the poor suckers that Swagger kills are dedicated American soldiers. Again, it's amazing what can happen in movies.
Along the way, Swagger meets a CIA agent, Nick Memphis (Michael Pena), with another corny name, who slowly begins to believe that the guy they're chasing may be innocent. He's the equivalent of Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive" but without much of a sense of humor. Then there's Col. Johnson's right-hand thug, Jack Payne (Elias Koteas), and where do they get these names? Of more interest is Sarah Finn (Kata Mara), Swagger's former partner's comely widow, a would-be nurse who helps Bob Lee in his hour of need. Finally, there's Senator Charles F. Meachum (Ned Beatty), a corrupt politician behind all the skulduggery.
OK, for a big, dumb action movie, "Shooter" works well enough, and parts of it are actually fun. By the second half, things get really dumb really fast, but by then we expect it. I mean, the hero crisscrosses the entire country and gets whatever weapons, ammunition, supplies, and camouflage garb he needs without any noticeable trouble, and he out-fights any opponent who gets in his way. And never wake him up unexpectedly; he's trained to kill. He has everything but an "S" printed on his T-shirt. I kept thinking as he ran and dodged bullets every two minutes, "Serpentine! Serpentine!"
Fortunately, Swagger is able to explain his actions in a single sentence: "I don't think you understand. These boys killed my dog." I can buy that.
Most everything about this 2.35:1, MPEG4, high-def video transfer is good, though not quite in the demonstration class. On the plus side, it is a new print and looks very, very clean; there is nary a trace of grain or fade or noise in sight. The colors are also good, a little bright and glassy but not at all unnatural. Call them "intense." And close-ups are excellent. On the minus side, there is a fairly dark aspect throughout, which conceals some detail in more shadowy scenes. I also noted a few instances of moiré effects, jittery, wavery lines (something I almost never see with VC-1 transfers, by the way), and there is a slightly soft focus to many of the shots. Overall, though, pretty nice.
The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound is clear and robust, with strong dynamics and taut impact. Exploding shells have seldom sounded more realistic. There is also a satisfyingly solid and deep bass, a broad front-channel soundstage, and enough surround information to keep a viewer interested.
The bonus items are the usual things we find on discs these days. First, there is the mandatory audio commentary, this one by director Antoine Fuqua, an articulate gentleman who speaks only when necessary. Other commentators could learn from this. Next, there are three featurettes, all in high definition widescreen. Third, there is a twenty-one-minute documentary, "Survival of the Fittest: The Making of Shooter." It begins with comments by Stephen Hunter, the author of the 1993 novel "Point of Impact," the inspiration for the film. He tells us that in turn he based his book on a real-life sniper. Then the documentary turns to the director, the stars, and the producer for the rest of its content. After that, there's "Independence Hall," a seven-minute segment that explains how a real assassination could take place in Philadelphia. Grim prospect. And that's followed by seven deleted scenes, totaling about eleven minutes.
Things wind down with a high-def, widescreen theatrical trailer; nineteen scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
If you don't mind watching a rerun of a few other, better, spy thrillers, "Shooter" isn't half bad. Wahlberg is still a good action hero, even if in this case he is rather wooden. The whole movie plays like an upscale Jean-Claude Van Damme flick, if that's your idea of a good time. Surprisingly, though, I found much to enjoy in this otherwise frustratingly derivative film.