Shooting Holes in a Conspiracy

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Mark Wahlberg in a scene from the film Shooter, directed by Antoine Fuqua.

"I need you to plan a presidential assassination," U.S. intelligence honcho Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) tells ex-Marine Gunnery Sgt. and all-round super sniper Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg). It's for the good of the country, of course: Seems that the CIA has a tip on a plot to take a potshot at POTUS; and Swagger, a former Marine Gunnery Sgt. who can nail a gnat from a mile away in a high wind, is just the fellow to get into the mind of the would-be Hinckley and prevent the fourth killing of a U.S. President.

If you smell a setup — the old governmental double-cross — don't bother congratulating yourself. We're only halfway through Act 1 of Shooter, the latest movie in the conspiracy-theory genre. Filmmakers have spun some pretty decent political nightmares out of the fear of another Lincoln, McKinley or Kennedy assassination. The Manchurian Candidate, of blessed memory, established the format; The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Winter Kills, JFK, Conspiracy Theory and last year's BBC fake-umentary Death of a President all ran cunning variations on it. Shooter, written by Jonathan Lemkin from Stephen Hunter's novel Point of Impact and directed by Antoine Fuqua, is an honorable rather than exceptional addition to the canon.

At the start, Swagger, still on active duty, is perched on a hilltop in Ethiopia — "a country we're not supposed to be in" — on assignment to shoot down some enemy soldiers. The movie has established its fidelity to the war and cop genres in this first scene, when Swagger's spotter, a nice kid, mentions he can't wait to see his girlfriend back home and is promptly killed. That information also gives Swagger a rare ally (pretty, stalwart Kate Mara, who played Heath Ledger's daughter in Brokeback Mountain) once he's on the run from Washington, D.C., to Tennessee, which he calls "the patron state of shootin' stuff." (The always authoritative Levon Helm has an excellent cameo here as a Yoda of gun lore.) His other helper is a rookie FBI agent (World Trade Center's Michael Pena), who does a lot of Internet research before he joins Swagger and gets to blow up some traitors.

Fuqua, who directed Training Day and King Arthur, knows his male audience, and knows that they like how-to movies on survival against all odds. So he spends plenty of screen time showing Swagger at work: cauterizing his own bullet wound, driving backward off a bridge into a river, planting napalm (a nice Vietnam touch) in an enemy compound. Indeed, the film is best at giving instructions in the assembling and detonation of weapons of movie distraction. And Wahlberg, so muscled up he looks as if he's ready to explode, is serious and committed to the genre. We happen to be in a period when the youngish male stars are mostly light comedians. Wahlberg could be the actor that action movies have been looking for since Sly, Arnold, Harrison, Bruce, Jackie and Jean-Claude — all in their 50s or 60s — got too old to execute the leg lifts necessary to kick bad guys in the butt.

Like most of the earlier conspiracy thrillers, this one proceeds from two warring premises: a synoptic cynicism about the men who run things, and a dewy belief in the myth of the lone hero. You're to accept on faith that the high-level perps are both deeply malevolent and supremely competent. (Uh-huh. Then why can't they run a simple Iraq occupation?) In the Oliver Stone tradition — who killed JFK? Everybody! — the mischief-makers have infected all branches of power: the military, the CIA, the Senate, big business. "There's no head to cut off," one of the perps explains. "This is a conglomerate." With a monopoly on state-sponsored (stateside) terrorism, they apparently can kill whomever gets in their way. Toward the end, one of the villains (Rade Sherbedgia) spills the entire conspiracy plot to Swagger because "This is just one dead man talking to another" — and because, otherwise, we wouldn't have a clue to what's going down.

In opposition is just one person: the Erin Brockovich of decommed soldiers, a Rambo with a higher IQ — Bob Lee Swagger! With a surname redolent of American machismo, and Christian names that suggest both Good Ol' Boy and President Assassination Suspect, Swagger is your standard-issue outlaw hero. He loves his pet pooch, has little use for humans. On being offered the assignment to prevent an assassination, he spits out his apolitical nihilism: "I don't much like this President. Didn't like the last one much either." (As a non-voter for either Bush or Clinton, he's in sync with nearly half of the American electorate.) But he soon has a personal motivation: "These boys killed my dog." Besides, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. And Swagger was born, bred and trained to locate and kill the enemy. Even the enemy within.

Toward the end, Swagger gets a civics lesson from a venal Montana Senator (Ned Beatty): "There's always a confused soul who thinks that one man can make a difference.... That's the problem with democracy." Actually, no. The problem with democracy is thinking that all men can make a difference. One man: that's despotism, or comic-book wish-fulfillment. Or the premise of nearly every Hollywood movie, which says that the system is corrupt, and the little guy can beat it. (Until the next movie, where the system is corrupt...)

With the entire U.S. police force, half the military, and seemingly most of the employees of Blackwater USA trying to kill him, will Bob Lee survive? We'd never tell, but a quick check of will show that Hunter has already published two Swagger sequels. There are other conspiracies to uncover, or invent, other countries in need of a superhero. Readers and moviegoers need him too, as an imaginary solution to monstrously real problems. It's too bad that Swagger is a fiction, and that the notion of one man who can right wrongs is less plausible than the conspiracy fears that summoned him up as a solo world police force.