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He shoots, it scores

Mark Wahlberg gives `Shooter' its considerable firepower.

March 23, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

IT'S a sentiment not found on the poster, but if you had to sum up Hollywood's latest action thriller in one sentence, you'd select the traditional "Mark Wahlberg is 'Shooter.' " He really is, and that is a good thing.

One of those elevated B-pictures that runs type across the bottom of the screen to identify cities, "Shooter" has its pro forma, paint-by-numbers elements, but it is executed with such efficiency and energy by action maestro Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") that ignoring flaws and becoming involved in the proceedings isn't a matter of choice.

Starting from a script by Jonathan Lemkin loosely adapted from Stephen Hunter's bestselling "Point of Impact," "Shooter" presents us with the kind of character the movies love: the heroic loner forced to do unequal battle for justice against phenomenal odds.

Bob Lee Swagger (yes, that is his name) is just such an individual. A former Marine scout sniper, he is a shooter so good he can take the rotation of the Earth into consideration and hit a target a mile away. The idea of missing, needless to say, never even crosses his mind, and playing him may do for Wahlberg what playing Jason Bourne did for Matt Damon.

Oscar-nominated for "The Departed," Walhberg is a brooding, convincing actor who seems to gain confidence and improve with every role. With "Shooter," he is called on to carry the picture while adding enough conviction to make its numerous "Mission: Impossible" implausibilities seem reasonable.

He does it and makes it look easy.

That character name notwithstanding, the key to Wahlberg's performance is that he never swaggers. Instead he projects a classic, wary stoicism as the retired marksman turned Wyoming recluse. Like few other actors -- Steve McQueen is the classic example -- Wahlberg radiates a casual sense of danger. He doesn't come off as an actor playing someone outside the law but the real thing somehow transferred to the screen.

After a prologue showing the events leading to his retirement, Swagger is traced to his mountain lair by shadowy retired Col. Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover), who works for one of those nameless, supersecret, quasi-governmental entities thrillers are so fond of. Calling on Swagger's unquenchable patriotism, Johnson asks for help.

The notion is that the government has heard that an ace sniper is planning to kill the president and Johnson claims he wants Swagger to figure out how such a man would do the job so that the plot can be stopped. What Johnson really wants, it soon turns out, is to use Swagger as the convenient fall guy an assassination can classically be pinned on.

Convenient, my foot. Swagger, not surprisingly, turns out to be not exactly patsy material. With his bottomless skill set, he knows how to keep himself alive and escape from any and all traps. Plus, like those old Timex watches, he can take a licking and keep on ticking. When he vows, "I'll burn their playhouse down," no one asks if he's just being metaphorical.

Resourceful as he is, even Swagger occasionally needs the help of fellow humans. Eventually coming to his aid are newly minted FBI agent Nick Memphis (Michael Pena) and Sarah Fenn (Kate Mara), the unavoidable attractive woman who, just as inevitably, ends up being menaced and tortured in her underwear. Surely there is a better way to hold our attention.

Expertly cast by veteran Mali Finn, "Shooter" finds room for the supremely evil Elias Koteas as the baddest of bad guys and a memorable cameo by the Band veteran Levon Helm as a ballistics wizard. Technical credits are all excellent as well, but the script goes in and out of effectiveness and has trouble deciding on a suitable ending: There are no fewer than three climaxes, which is one and likely two too many.

Carrying "Shooter" through its difficulties is, finally, not its crisp action sequences and definitely not the torture. It's Wahlberg's performance, which is the film's most old-fashioned element, and its best.

"The Shooter." MPAA rating: R for strong graphic violence and some language. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. In general release.

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