Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Michael Pena, Danny Glover, Kate Mara, Ned Beatty
Run. Time: 124 minutes
Shooter follows veteran expert sniper Bob Lee Swagger (Wahlberg) as he is taken out of retirement by a mysterious Colonel (Glover) to help prevent a presidential assassination. At the assassination events turn against Swagger and he uses what few resources he has and the help of disgruntled federal agent Nick Memphis (Pena) to track those behind his misfortune and bring them to his own idea of justice. Parallel to this he is trying to protect the wife of his spotter from the military after she helps him, exposing herself as a target.
Essentially this is an action/conspiracy movie with the hook that the action is principally sniping as opposed to what you would expect from this type of movie; car chases, lots of pistols, running about, shooting from behind cover, a fist fight or two. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy that stuff, I love it, but this film very deliberately went in a different direction and it works. It works really well.
I’ve never served in the armed forces or even handled a gun but the impression I got from this film was that they were really trying to give an accurate depiction of what goes into the operation of a long-range sniper. If anybody reading this can let me know then please do. They show how a sniper is only as good as his spotter. That’s the guy that pics the targets and gives the shooter the information he needs to judge the shot, here he has a hand-written table to consult for humidity, flight-time etc. Later on in the film Mark Wahlberg’s character discusses these things as well as the Coriolis Effect. The reason it felt accurate was because if I hadn’t been interested in it, it probably would have been dull. Fortunately, I did find it interesting and I really enjoyed what I perceived as a great attention to detail. Again if anyone can tell me that this film is utter bullshit, then please do.
When I mentioned that it would have been dull, I was referring only to the points of discussion early in the film. The sequences themselves are shot with a wonderful sense of tension that makes them gripping and enjoyable, despite the fact that all our hero does is lie in a fixed position, but I like that because that’s what he is fucking trained to do. You wouldn’t expect him to be able to win his battles any other way and he doesn’t. He has a very particular set of skills and he ensures that every battle he fights allows him to utilise these. This was another element of the film I enjoyed: many of his confrontations are intricately planned, from where reinforcements are likely to come from to placement of improvised explosives to take out said reinforcements that he couldn’t hope to any other way. Although a lot of the battle were pretty large in scope I really felt that they could have been pulled off in this world, not a movie one. But that feeling of reality lets another aspect of the film down completely.
The villains in this movie are cartoon characters. They’re so ridiculously evil and are portrayed with such serial villain performance by their actors that they feel completely at odds with the rest of what’s happening. There’s a bit close to the end where they’re discussing what’s happened before in a hunting lodge of a glass of brandy and their dialogue is as subtle as if you had some rich people sitting in a country club wearing golden suits just saying “Pff. Poor people” and then cackling uproariously. Now, if the film had opened with Mark Wahlberg using the air humidity to curve a bullet around a mountainside and shoot someone using a buxom blonde as a human shield inside a moving freight container whilst he was in free fall having jumped from an exploding plane, then I would have went along with these characters. But the movie presented itself to me as having a bit more depth.
Another manifestation of this depth is in the character of Bob Lee Swagger himself. I found him to be a conflicted, fallible hero that it was easy to get behind but that I didn’t feel distant from. The writers never feel the need to conform to the usual tropes of action movie heroes. He’s stoic, but he’s pained and it leads to a clear social discomfort, as you might expect from someone who’s trained as long as he seems to and who’s best friend a man he had to be with for the duration of his service. I thought Mark Wahlberg played him really well and was a great choice for the role. I also enjoyed the relationship with his spotter’s bereaved wife. There is an awkwardness but with trust and an obvious sexual tension between the two, although it’s left enjoyably unclear as to how conscious of this Wahlberg’s character is and I enjoyed the resolution of their relationship. Kate Mara’s deeply affecting in the role as well.
I’ve gone to great lengths pointing out all of the ways this in unlike other action movies, but make no mistake that it is one, almost old school and I kind of loved that. It follows the same sort of beats and has a refreshingly simple story at its centre giving the film a strong drive throughout, something I’ve felt has been missing from more modern flicks. It also brings back an honest-to-goodness sidekick in the form of Michael Pena’s character who serves as the lookout Swagger needs on his missions, although he does seem to learn conveniently quickly within the time frame of the film. But, it really made me smile to see an unashamed sidekick again and I enjoyed the character a lot. Despite its grounding in reality it does have a couple of awesome bits as well. There’s a bit at the start where he manages to take out a helicopter, not the pilot, the helicopter, with a single shot from a sniper rifle. Maybe that’s possible, I doubt it, but either way it was awesome but it didn’t jar me too much, not as much as the villains anyway.
The movie has a lot of style as well, that’s present in how it flows to how it looks. It also felt very slick, and I don’t mean that to say that it was soulless, I just meant that it all felt very well-made, fully reasoned and well executed and it’s nice to be impressed by a movie instead of finding things to complain about.
Whilst I enjoyed the film it does have some flaws. Now, I like Danny Glover, but he’s terrible in this. He snarls and gravels his way through the performance and it’s really distracting. The movie also runs out of steam a little bit towards the end and there’s an odd lull just before the end for a weird sort of courtroom scene that, whilst a nice set piece, I thought didn’t really fit. The depth of the conspiracy is a bit silly, like those perpetrating it and its thesis on the nature of the military-industrial complex is a little bit simplistic. There’s also the fact that it never really deals with the fallout of Swagger’s actions or in any way asks us to question the idea of justice that he adheres to even though I thought it was necessary. I would have traded that courtroom bit for a little bit more reflection time. Aside from that I just have a couple of little niggles. There’s a character in it who, to my mind, arbitrarily kills himself and I’ve been seeing it in a few films recently and it never makes any dramatic or personal sense to me and it happens way too easily. It’s a cheap script convenience and it never sits properly with me.
Finally, what is happening to the right-hand-man villain? This used to be a great character. Think of Karl from Die Hard. I have fond memories of Stamper from Tomorrow Never Dies. The penultimate boss is usually really cool, but recently they’ve felt totally extraneous. District 9, Avatar and Taken all had completely unnecessary, stupid ones and so does Shooter. The guy’s needlessly vicious but without any justification. I mean, even if it’s just a little motivation like, say, the death of your brother, give us something! I mean, that dude in Avatar was a meat-head, but all he did was make a snide remark about Jake at the very start of the film and suddenly at the end this makes him an important villain who gets a dedicated and brutal death? Book of Eli, did it right, though. That guy was great, but COME ON PEOPLE! You’re wasting one of the great secondary characters here. Let’s pick it up!
I really enjoyed Shooter; a lot more than I was expecting. It offers a familiar structure and feel whilst giving an alternative idea of action. It’s got a great, fallible protagonist and some good performances. It’s fun, well-paced, stylish and intricately constructed. It’s let down by poor villains and a bad performance as well as a lack of depth in some of the issues it presents, but it’s well worth your time.