Jul 9, 2007

DVD Review: Shooter (2007)

The perfectly symmetrical final shot of Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter shows an some sort of classic American muscle car straddling the dotted yellow line as it zooms away down the exact middle of the road toward the mountains on the horizon. The shot is an exercise in perspective, the sort children learn on the first day of art class. It’s perfectly composed, and it looks neat. But why is the car straddling the yellow line? Why isn’t it driving in the proper lane? Is the driver drunk? No. The director simply doesn’t want logic to spoil his pretty composition. And that’s exactly how the whole movie feels. Things like logic and story are never permitted to obscure lingering, Michael Bay-inspired shots of hardware, or fancy Bruckheimeresque bursts of action.

Unfortunate-ly, these bursts are too few and far between to enable viewers to just turn their brains off and enjoy it like a Bay spectacle. Shooter wants to be a thinking man’s action film, yet it paradoxically defies the logic that thought provokes at every turn. Fuqua and writer Jonathan Lemkin seem to believe that long, boring stretches between action scenes make the movie thought-provoking, or "like a 70s film," as Fuqua says again and again on the commentary track. No, they make the movie long and boring.

The Ipcress File was originally touted on its American poster as "a thinking man’s Goldfinger." It goes even longer stretches without action than Shooter, and its infrequent bursts of it are far less spectacular. Yet it’s never boring, because director Sidney J. Furie used the slow pace to build suspense, to move the "who’s the traitor?" storyline forward and to develop the character of Harry Palmer. And Michael Caine oozed so much undeniable charisma even as a sad-sack, working-stiff schlub of a spy that it was fun just to watch him cook a meal–and his actions in doing so informed the character. The long, actionless stretches in Shooter fail to do any of that, and the movie just flounders.

Furthermore, star Mark Wahlberg lacks the charisma necessary to make us want to watch him stitch his own wounds, let alone make breakfast. (Fortunately we’re not subjected to that.) Now, I actually think that Wahlberg is a terrific actor in the right part (see his deservedly Oscar-nominated turn in The Departed, for example), but he’s an Actor, not a Movie Star. Movie star charisma isn’t his strong suit, so while he may have the ability to totally inhabit a well-written character, he doesn’t really carry enough external charm with him to bring an underwritten part to life. (As evidenced when he attempts to fill the shoes of charm-dripping Movie Stars like Caine, Cary Grant and Charlton Heston in the remakes he’s so inexplicably drawn to.)* In one of the featurettes on the disc, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura says that the character of Swagger is "essentially a John Wayne character, which has been missing from movies for a while." He’s right, but Wahlberg is not the actor to embody that character. He’s a better actor than Wayne, but totally lacks the Duke’s larger than life persona.

John Wayne didn’t need too many character traits to make a role his own, but Wahlberg does and sadly all he’s given to work with is a bad ponytail and a five-day beard. Those are the things that tell us that his character, former Marine sniper Rob Lee Swagger, has turned his back on civilization after a failed mission that got his spotter killed. Swagger has since retired to the backwoods of some godforsaken mountaintop to wear flannels and live with his dog and ignore the world around him. Until the CIA comes knocking, in the person of Danny Glover as Col. Isaac Johnson. Johnson does have charm, and he uses it to convince Swagger to come out of retirement to prevent the assassination of the U.S. president. Here the movie takes a moment to assure us that it’s staunchly apolitical, lest it offend either portion of its potential audience. "I don’t much like the president," Swagger says. "Didn’t much like the one before either." Still, he likes his country enough to come help Johnson look for an assassin at a presidential speech in Philadelphia, only to be set up as a patsy when the killing actually takes place. (But not of the president himself.)

Yep, Glover’s a bad guy, and he clearly relishes the journey from fatherly patriot to tooth-gnashing villainy. The problem is, he picked the wrong guy. Rob Lee Swagger (obviously chosen for his assassin-like three part name) takes two bullets but gets away, and becomes a man on the run out to prove his innocence. This leads to a lengthy, unpleasant sequence in which the wounded Swagger bleeds a lot, breathes heavily and slurs his speech. Amidst all this he somehow hooks up with the requisite Girl (Kate Mara), enabling her to later be endangered.

Meanwhile only one FBI agent, a rookie improbably named Nick Memphis (Michael Pena), sees any of the highly obvious clues that Swagger wasn’t the real shooter, and no one else believes him and everyone thinks he’s crazy even though he doesn’t say anything that crazy. As far as I can tell, he’s just conducting a normal investigation into a shooting, as presumably the FBI is supposed to do. The appealing Pena does the best he can with another underdeveloped role, eventually teaming up with Wahlberg.

Halfway through the movie, former Band drummer Levon Helm turns up as a Kentucky gun-maker and conspiracy nut and injects some brief life into the proceedings. He puts Swagger and Memphis on the trail of the real assassin, which leads to a huge shootout at a farmhouse in which the two of them take on a whole army of mercenaries. This is the stuff that Fuqua does well (there should be more of it in the movie), and the director stages a pretty spectacular shootout ending in lots of explosions. Then things get boring again as the tedious conspiracy plays out (apparently there’s one senator responsible for all the Bad Stuff the CIA does, and he’s Ned Beatty) and we wait for the cool arctic showdown we all know is coming from the preview.

Sure enough, Swagger eventually lures Johnson to a remote glacier, where a cool all-white suit helps him blend into the snow. (More on that in a moment.) But not even this sequence wraps things up! There are still another twenty minutes after what seemed to be the climax, and finally another climax that seems tacked on as an after-thought. (And was, Fuqua reveals on the commentary.) The moral is that CIA covert operations are generally bad, but it’s sometimes OK for former snipers to mete out frontier justice at home when the justice system fails.

I didn’t really relish sitting through eleven minutes of deleted scenes after the seemingly interminable movie finally ended, but the first one actually would have helped. It’s the introduction of Nick Memphis, and it sets him up a much more sympathetic character. As it is he just turns up in the middle of the action during the assassination and it’s not clear until later that he’s a main character. Pena’s character also would have been developed more if they’d kept a brief scene where he’s feeling shaky after making his first kill. The rest of the scenes were wisely cut, but it’s a pity they stopped there. I could have easily done with another twenty minutes’ worth of deleted scenes if it meant a shorter movie.

Things really perk up with a fantastic twenty minute making-of featurette called "Survival of the Fittest: The Making of Shooter." It features interviews with Stephen Hunter, author of the book on which the movie is based, Fuqua, Wahlberg and others. (Wahlberg actually doesn’t contribute too much, leaving that task to Pena and Mara.) Fuqua discusses the logistics of filming the farmhouse shootout, which is pretty interesting, but not as much as what technical advisor Patrick Garrity has to say. Garrity, a former Marine sniper himself, clearly knows his stuff. He introduces all of the guns involved in that scene, and explains their use and why they were chosen. He also talks at length about the art of sniping. I had no idea how much math was involved in shooting someone! Helpful onscreen diagrams reveal how everything from distance to the curvature of the earth factors into a good shot.

Listening to everything Garrity said, I couldn’t help but think, "this is fascinating; this would make a great movie!" Unfortunately, none of it went into the movie I had just watched! For example, in the film Wahlberg turns up on the glacier clad head-to-toe in a white camouflage get-up, with only his eyes showing. For some reason there are huge white feathers attached to the suit, which comes off as unintentionally comical as it makes him look a little bit like Bjork at the Oscars. Garrity, however, explains the feathers, and the explanation makes a lot of sense. He shares that the outfit is called a "Gillie suit," and its intention is as much to break up the sniper’s profile as to blend him in to the colors of his environment. Rival snipers know to look for the curves and lines of a human form, which stand out from nature. The feathers, therefore, serve to obscure the prone shooter’s human silhouette on the snowy terrain. Had that bit of exposition been cleverly worked into the movie instead of just popping up in the bonus features, it not only would have diminished the comic effect of the feathers; it would have piqued my interest in seeing how the character employed them and made for a more effective scene.
We’re also treated to footage of Wahlberg on various firing ranges, learning the ins and outs of sniping from Garrity. Garrity says he was a quick learner, and was soon hitting man-sized targets at an impressive 1100 yards. I suppose this training lent verisimilitude to the film for professional snipers; again, the rest of us could have appreciated it more with a bit of exposition.

There’s another short featurette on Independence Hall. This is kind of strange because the location only figures briefly in the movie, when it serves as the site of the assassination. Park rangers talk about the history of the Hall, and share facts about the Liberty Bell and various historical tidbits. I like educational featurettes on DVDs that teach the viewer more about something the movie dealt with (like the Dateline segment on the Breach disc), but this one’s sort of strange since it really doesn’t have much of a direct connection to Shooter whatsoever.

Finally, there’s a feature commentary from Fuqua. He’s very affable and comes off as a guy you’d like to spend time with, which always makes for a good listening experience. He spends a lot of time praising every actor who appears however briefly in the movie and saying that he wishes he could have used him more. It doesn’t make for killer listening, but it makes me like the guy. He very earnestly explains the intention of every scene in the film, and explains why he made a lot of the shot choices he did and what he was trying to say with them. This made me appreciate the movie a little bit more, but it would have been better if it had spoken for itself without the director having to spell it out. At least the filmmakers had good intentions, though. Fuqua clearly has a lot of ideas, and I suspect he’s got a better movie in him than we’ve seen yet.

The best nugget of information on the commentary is another bit that would have improved the film had it ended up in the script instead of in a supplement. He describes an aspect of Lemkin’s script that Garrity changed. Originally, Lemkin had Swagger and his spotter eating Pop Tarts while they waited, well hidden, for their targets to arrive. Garrity said that a sniper would never eat sugar or caffeine in this situation because he wants to lower his heart rate, not raise it. He wants to be perfectly calm, in an almost Zen-like state, when he takes the shot. So they changed it to Beef Jerky.

Shooter is a perfectly competent movie technically, not terrible but not very good either. Ultimately it’s just mediocre, and that makes it seem very long. In the 80s it would have been a typical Steven Seagal revenge flick. The fact that it somehow ended up as a big studio action movie from an Oscar-nominated director and star instead unfortunately doesn’t elevate it much beyond that. But Paramount has put together a pretty good DVD, though, with bonus features far more engrossing than the film itself. If you’re interested in a sniper’s routine, the disc is worth Netflicking for the featurette alone. Otherwise, it’s a pass.

*Actually, I quite like the Italian Job remake, and Wahlberg is good in that one because his Charlie Croker isn’t Caine’s. Caine’s Croker was all flash; Wahlberg’s is understated and introspective. The flashy, showy characteristics are instead doled out to supporting players on the team like Jason Statham, Mos Def and Seth Green, all of whom handle them with charm and ease. The remake will never hold a candle to the original (which is one of my favorite movies), but thankfully it doesn’t try to tread the same ground and invents a clever new heist plot, with only the names and the Mini Coopers remaining the same.

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