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Justice in action: Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter aims at cynicism

If Shooter reflects a gestaltic gasp for air—and what action flick ultimately doesn’t?—then we Americans have become an exceedingly cynical bunch.

The film is a typical example of the techno-thriller genre, which is interesting because it doesn’t cast Soviets or Arabs or some other foreign specter haunting our collective imagination as the enemy. Instead, Shooter pits its hero against a lawless group of military contractors, managed as a private army by an unrepentantly corrupt U.S. senator. America, your enemies are foreign and domestic.

Mark Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger, a retired Marine scout sniper with a love for country that doesn’t extend to its government. The contradiction stems from a mission in which Swagger and his spotter Donnie Fenn (Lane Garrison) get shot up during a covert mission behind enemy lines. The opening scene is the furthest thing from coy. Fenn breaks out a picture of his girl and tells Swagger that she just started nursing school; he’s dead from a gut shot seconds later.

Three years and one ponytail after this disillusioning moment, Swagger is approached by Col. Isaac Johnson, played with a disconcerting lisp by Danny Glover, on the pretext of planning the assassination of the president in order to prevent it. It’s a setup and once Wahlberg escapes the dragnet meant to frame him as the assassin, the incident precipitates a small-scale war between the man who knows how to kill and the people who taught him.

Enlisted in Swagger’s cause are an FBI rookie who knows too much (Michael Peña) and Fenn’s old girlfriend, a doe-eyed and busty Kentucky belle played by Kate Mara. They discover a conspiracy to conduct U.S. foreign policy with dirty tactics and total deniability, not that the conspirators conceal much from the camera.

Leading the shadow government is six-term Montana Senator Charles Meachum (Ned Beatty), a whiskey-drinking, back-slapping jowly old cutthroat of a man who regularly dispenses dialogue to demonstrate the contempt in which he holds his office. The choicest example: “There’s always some confused soul who thinks one man can make a difference, and you have to kill him to convince him otherwise. That’s the problem with democracy.”

With villain and virtue firmly defined, Shooter’s plot advances straightforwardly through spasms of violence both pyrotechnically indiscriminate and rifle-scope precise. It all culminates in a sating justice-porn orgy where the steadfastly mendacious suffer vengeance during a sanctified bloodbath of vigilantism.

And so the republic is safer in the way it always is at the end of an action flick, the phantom of empowered evil banished by a righteous warrior, leaving audiences with the cynicism that made the evil plausible in the first place—and a smile at its easy dispatch.

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