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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Shooter' half hits, half misses

'Shooter': Half hits, half misses

Lawrence ToppmanThe Charlotte ObserverPublished: Thursday, March 22, 2007

Oil companies, the military and the federal government are in bed again in "Shooter," an intermittently preposterous, drawn-out but sometimes entertaining story about an unstoppable ex-Marine.

Stephen Hunter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic from The Washington Post, has written three novels about the sniper with nerves and eye of steel; this comes from the first, the 1993 "Point of Impact," where gunnery sergeant Bob Lee Swagger was a Vietnam vet. Now Swagger (love that name) is played with grim determination by Mark Wahlberg as a disillusioned 30-ish warrior who left the service after his buddy was cut down mistakenly on an evacuation mission in Ethiopia. But it wasn't a mistake, as he learns three years later.

A colonel (Danny Glover) visits Swagger and asks him to forestall a potential assassination, mapping routes by which the president could be shot and helping them catch the culprit in the act. In reality, Swagger is set up as the fall guy for a different killing, engineered by the colonel and a Montana senator (Ned Beatty) to cover up an atrocity in Ethiopia. You see, Swagger was supposed to die in Africa, too, but the bad guys have found a use for him.

Director Antoine Fuqua has a reasonable idea of how to blow things up or sustain a firefight. Writer Jonathan Lemkin's scripts have always been far-fetched - he did "The Devil's Advocate," "Red Planet" and the excruciating "Lethal Weapon 4" - and this is no exception. From the moment Swagger stanches potentially fatal wounds while riding through a car wash to the scene where he and a partner drive from Virginia to Montana in one day, "Shooter" regularly slaps reality in the face.

The film has been rigged for maximum emotional effect by making its villains the type of clowns who admit guilt publicly, crowing over their untouchability and saying things like "I win. You lose - again. Get over it."

We never see this kind of nyah-nyah finger-wagging in real life, where officials slide out of responsibility like greased weasels, but it helps to have every creep here laugh at his misdeeds. That way, we can watch the relentless Swagger slit, stab and shoot his way to righteous justice without having qualms. And isn't it satisfying, in an era where our government lies with smirking impunity, to find someone who always knows the truth?

Michael Pena has effective moments as Nick Memphis (love that name, too), the rookie FBI agent who bucks his superiors and doubts Swagger's guilt. Kate Mara adds sincerity as the former fiancee of Swagger's service buddy, a plucky woman who helps Swagger flee the cops.

She manages to appear without underwear or most of her outerwear in every scene, of course. (I didn't realize torturers usually stripped women to their lingerie.) Rhona Mitra, the other significant female lead, plays an FBI agent in revealing outfits and button-popping sweaters. The phrase "toys for boys" applies mostly, but not exclusively, to weapons in this picture.

** out of four stars.

Rated R.