In the same week that sees Adam Sandler playing a grieving 9/11 widower in Reign Over Me, another lone figure reeling from post-traumatic stress fills the central role in the new Antoine Fuqua-directed thriller, Shooter. Named Bob Lee Swagger and played with appropriately gruff machismo by Mark Wahlberg, he's a former Marine gunnery sergeant and scout sniper who's also lost someone special -- not his wife or girlfriend, but his spotter, Donnie (Lane Garrison). (In military terms, the shooter-spotter relationship is about as close as two guys can get without asking or telling.) Three years ago in Ethiopia, both men were left for dead by their superiors when their "unofficial" mission got officially all fucked up. Only Swagger made it out alive.
Cut to the present and some shadowy ex-military types (led by Danny Glover) who show up on Swagger's doorstep with a really big favor to ask: They want him to kill the president of the United States -- or rather, they want him to tell them, O.J. Simpson-style, how he would kill the prez if he were to do it. Internal government intelligence, it seems, has uncovered an assassination plot timed to the president's upcoming public appearance in Philadelphia, during which the fatal shot will be fired by an expert marksman from a distance of more than a mile. Swagger's expertise is needed to flush out the suspect. The men in black speak of honor and duty and patriotism. "Do we let America be ruled by thugs?" they ask Swagger rhetorically. "Sure, some years we do," he replies. Still, he agrees to take the job, even if we rightly suspect that any deal made by Glover and his oily private contractors is certain to prove a devil's bargain.
Sure enough, Swagger soon finds himself once again trapped behind enemy lines and on the run from hostile pursuers, only this time he's not in Africa but in the city of brotherly love, and everyone in America (save for one rookie FBI agent and the widow of Swagger's former spotter) thinks he just tried to cap the leader of the free world. The feature-length cat-and-mouse game that follows is nimbly executed by Fuqua (Training Day, King Arthur), who's grown immeasurably more confident as a director since making his debut with the slapdash Chow Yun-Fat vehicle The Replacement Killers, which was like the movie equivalent of bad Chinese takeout. Fuqua isn't a virtuoso stylist, but he shoots the kind of lean, efficient action scenes that directors like Ted Kotcheff and John Flynn once specialized in, and the entire movie exudes a refreshingly low-tech vibe that's of a piece with the resourcefulness of its protagonist, who can fashion a makeshift IV out of grocery store sundries and, in what may be the most squirm-inducing act of self-medication since Bruce Willis pulled broken glass out of his bleeding bare feet in the original Die Hard, applies a granulated astringent called QuikClot to his gaping gunshot wounds.
Wittily adapted by screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin (The Devil's Advocate) from the first in a trilogy of Swagger novels by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter, Shooter is a generically-titled studio action picture that turns out to be a surprisingly deft satire about Americans' loss of faith in their government following the 2000 election, the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Betrayed by Uncle Sam both at home and abroad, Swagger starts to seem like the last honest exponent of old-fashioned American virtue -- a John Rambo for the Bush II generation -- and the more he learns about the conspiracy that has taken hold of his life, the further he sees that it reaches: That everything really is about oil money and that, in the words of the movie's fat-cat red-state senator (a wonderfully smarmy Ned Beatty), there are no heroes and villains or Democrats and Republicans -- only haves and have-nots. Cannily programmed at the start of the 2008 election season, this rampantly amoral and Darwinian film persuasively argues that, in today's America, it's every man for himself and commerce against all. Allow me to be the first to propose Bob Lee Swagger for president.