How is that Halliburton gets the engineering job in Iraq without any bidding with any other company? How does that happen? I’m fascinated with that. How is it that companies get their checks from the World Bank and you can’t trace any of it, you can’t trace any of them?
— Antoine Fuqua, Movieweb
Bob Lee Swagger. Is there a more perfect name for an action hero? And, as played by Mr. Buff Mark Wahlberg, Bob Lee is not only hard-bodied, handsome, and an able super-sniper, but also aptly brooding and distrusting: he’s the ideal action man for a world turned upside down.
Swagger embodies that turning right off the bat in Shooter, when, during a mission in Ethiopia, he and his spotter, Donnie (Lane Garrison), are pinned down by unexpected enemy fire. The scene goes on for long minutes, with lots of expertise on display — warlordy-looking guys’ chests exploding, their heads popping off in red splats — as Swagger and Donnie perform admirably, but alas and inevitably, Donnie must suffer the fate he sealed by pulling a photo of his sweet young wife from his wallet just before the assault. And Swagger must return Stateside damaged and vengeful.
In the film’s present, “36 months later,” Swagger’s living the mountain man’s life, “shooting his own food,” trudging through snow with his beer-lapping big doggie, suitably surly when he’s interrupted by a pack of suits from DC. Led by Medal of Honor-toting Colonel Johnson (Danny Glover), this obviously unreliable crew makes a pitch: someone’s plotting to assassinate the president, and they need the brilliant Swagger to anticipate the plot in order to thwart it. “I don’t really like the president much,” snarls Swagger. Still, he’s burdened by a “history of duty and patriotism,” as Johnson puts it, so he’s soon scouting locations in Philadelphia, setting himself as the designated shooter in an attempt on the president’s life that leaves the Ethiopian archbishop dead.
Bob Lee Swagger (MARK WAHLBERG) is a former Marine Corps sniper who is the subject of a nationwide manhunt
FBI agents Alourdes Galindo (RHONA MITRA, left)
and Nick Memphis (MICHAEL PENA) take a meeting
All this is set-up. It’s good-looking, heartfelt, and detailed set-up, as director Antoine Fuqua establishes Swagger’s interests in the 9/11 Commission Report and ballistics tables (not to mention his dog, which makes him an especially sensitive Force Recon Marine Officer) in order to set him up as a government doubter. When his suspicion is confirmed, you’re already a few steps ahead of him, long before believing the worst of Johnson and his shady associates, the impeccably named thug Jack Payne (Elias Koteas) and the sinister man-in-a-wheelchair, Sandor (Rade Sherbedgia). It’s no surprise when it’s revealed that a malevolent senator from Montana (Ned Beatty) is orchestrating much of the mayhem in order to assure continued oil revenues, his heh-heh-hehing of a piece with Johnson’s smug assumption that he’s untouchable. All this ornery machismo makes Swagger’s incessant (and “honestly” motivated) bloodshed seem positively civil by comparison: he sees corporate greed and political maneuvering for what it is: contemptible sublimation for what these men can’t achieve, that is, Swaggerness.
This being a genre picture, that estimable quality can’t be achieved without appropriate sidekicks, even if Swagger is a loner by nature. He finds his requisite heterosexuality-affirming support in Donnie’s sweet young wife, Sarah (Kate Mara), a schoolteacher conveniently trained as a nurse so she can remove bullets from his muscles. (She also conveniently looks swell in her bra, an image occasioned more than once.) And in case you’re inclined to think less of Swagger for being so naïve during his framing as the assassin, he’s soon hooked up with an even more naïve sidekick, FBI agent Nick Memphis (Michael Peña), whose frankly remarkable charm goes a long way toward: 1) alleviating Swagger’s severity and 2) underlining that even eager young company men are obligated to take up arms against their bosses when those bosses are villains (or perhaps worse, FBI plebes with seniority who do what they’re told without question).
This notion that villains might be identified and “dealt with” is rather quaint. Indeed, one of them observes during his final moments on earth that this is not the “wild west” and Swagger won’t be able to “clean it up with a gun,” at which point you know — again — that this is exactly what he will do. And you’ll be happy enough to see him do it. His cowboy rampaging is distinct from poser cowboy threats by virtue of his street cred: Swagger has been to war, he lives in a kind of guilt-hell over Donnie, and he can deliver just punishment, whether upfront with balls-out firepower or devious, like a stalker in the night. (When being seduced by Johnson, he responds to the question, “Do we let America be ruled by thugs?” with pertinent cynicism: “Sure, some years we do”).
Bob Lee Swagger (MARK WAHLBERG, left) enlists the help of Sarah Fenn (KATE MARA), the widow of his late best friend
While Swagger describes himself modestly (“I’m just a peckerwood who lives in the woods with too many guns”), he’s also one of those highly trained government instruments (like, say, Bourne) whose post-trauma mission in life is vengeance against the institutions and individuals who have wronged not only him, but the rest of the planet. With visions of Donnie dancing in his head — not to mention a frequently mentioned mass grave of Ethiopian villagers who had to be removed to clear the way for a pipeline — Swagger devises one ferocious orchestration after another, such that the film is a series of battles, like a musical is a series of dances or a porn movie is a series of sex scenes, with dialogue in between.
Such dialogue is most effectively integrated when it concerns Swagger and Nick’s mutual weapons know-how (they make napalm and assorted pipe bombs from merchandise found at a hardware store) and disparagement of Big Bad Government. A visit to Mr. Rate (Levon Helm) — located in Tennessee, which Swagger calls “the patron state of shootin’ stuff” — provides discussion of “paper patching” (an old-fashioned and apparently still effective way of disguising bullets’ signatures) as well as some acute joking about the film’s favorite target: “They also said artificial sweeteners were safe, WMDs were in Iraq, and Anna Nicole married for love” declares Swagger. Yeah, yeah, yeah: but for all the topical snark provided by Shooter, Swagger’s most profound reason for what he does is personal. As he puts it so earnestly and categorically: “These boys killed my dog.”