March 21-27, 2007

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Photograph by Kimberley French
Happiness is a really big gun: Ace sniper Mark Wahlberg shoulders the burden of a secret plot in 'Shooter.'

The Rifleman

Mark Wahlberg's 'Shooter' aims high, hits low

By Richard von Busack

AS PRETTY GOOD as it is, Shooter illustrates the decline of the paranoid thriller; it definitely didn't need the competition of this week's DVD release of Casino Royale. After a mission in Ethiopia that went badly, ace sniper Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) retires from the military. He hangs out on a Wyoming mountaintop with his Budweiser-fetching dog. Government agents, led by a decorated colonel (Danny Glover), ask Swagger to block an assassination attempt against the president. But it turns out that Swagger's been set up, presumably just as Lee Harvey Oswald was. The most-wanted man in America, Swagger hits the road and finds the only person who will believe him: Sarah (Kate Mara), the fiancee of his dead spotter back in the Army. An FBI agent (Michael Peña) also gets involved.

Shooter is based on a character created by Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter. Retooled for today's Iraq angst, Shooter rations out gunplay in between clashes of personality. If director Antoine Fuqua doesn't break new ground, he farms the old patch well. He is skilled with the "Fleming effect," i.e., the real trivia that conceals the essential impossibility: the extraterrestrial-looking ghillie suits snipers wear, for instance, or the useful info that the Coriolis effect has to be calculated into a sniper's trigonometry. We learn that C&H makes a good emergency field dressing. A box of sugar saves Swagger's life, just as a shaker of salt saves James Bond in Casino Royale.

Elias Koteas plays a perverted henchman, and Croatian actor Rade Sherbedgia turns up as a gray eminence in a wheelchair. Mr. Rate, a ballistics Yoda (Levon Helm), supplies the best moment. Doddering and half-blind, he has a fine trick; he grabs people's wrists, snaps their palms open and reads their fates. Helm's insinuation of his tiny part in the JFK hit provides a rare moment of playfulness in a thriller that takes itself very seriously. But what can you do about Wahlberg? The man is not a gazelle. He has tree-trunk arms and the most immobile face since Charles Bronson. When it comes time for weapons talk, he doesn't show excitement: he rattles off statistics, the motor mouth suggesting an engine purring under that square skull.

The film's trailers, which do a first-class job of spoiling this movie, tell us that Glover and Ned Beatty (as a senator) are up to no good. So there's little payoff when we see them chortling and smoking cigars, in a way our deluded government schemers really can't be doing—they're in far too much trouble. But that's 2007 for you: We can't just imagine a conspiratorial government that's lying to us; they also must be laughing at us. And Shooter suggests that nothing short of firepower will stop the traitors. No one proposes to go to the press, not even as a joke.

Of the two paranoid thrillers, I prefer Casino Royale, which offers an elegant fantasy of a world in which every man's hand is against you, and you can't trust the women either. Casino Royale keeps its paranoia percolating with the dropping of the code word "Ellipsis," suggesting a nest of Fritz Lang-style spiders on the World Wide Web. At the end, James Bond is still at large. Shooter ends by having its protagonist head for the militia-haunted fastness of the Rocky Mountains. It's the perfect date movie for gun nuts.

Movie Times Shooter (R), directed by Antoine Fuqua, written by Jonathan Lemkin, based on the novel by Stephen Hunter, photographed by Peter Menzies Jr. and starring Mark Wahlberg, plays valleywide.

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