Shooter: Antoine (Training Day) Fuqua’s Conspiracy Thriller, Starring Mark Wahlberg

What has happened to the gifted director Antoine Fuqua, who six years ago made the excellent thriller-policier Training Day, for which Denzel Washington deservedly won his second Best Actor Oscar.

Clearly, Fuqua’s specialty is fast-moving actioners, but he seems impervious to issues of narrative logic, compelling dramatic characters, and basic credibility. These problems plagued his former actioner “Tears of the Sun,” starring Bruce Willis, and the historical epic “King Arthur,” and they also plague his new feature, “Shooter.”

Fuqua would like to believe that “Shooter” is the “thinking man’s Rambo,” but based on the movie he has directed, there is nothing to think aboutor to believe in. In intent, the movie aims to belong to the tradition of conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, specifically “Three Days of the Condor.”

However, lacking real characters or ideas, “Shooter” just takes from those movies the cynical tone, here in its depiction of a corrupt government and decadent senators, one of whom is played by Ned Beatty (a character actors closely associated with 1970s cinema).

In actuality, “Shooter” is a pastiche of movie clichs, some dating back to John Wayne’s flicks in the 1940s and 1950s, with no effort to update them for the present.

One of the few rewards offered by “Shooter” is watching Mark Wahlberg, fresh from his Oscar nominated supporting turn in “The Departed,” play a leading role, with his name above the title. Hard as Wahlberg tries to hold the entire movie on his muscular shoulders, he doesn’t succeed. Hopefully, the blame for the movie’s failure will not be put on him and he’ll be given another chance to prove his stature and bankability.

Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger, a former Marine scout sniper and disgruntled American hero, an honorable, even brilliant marksman, who finds himself in an untenable situation when he’s framed as a Presidential assassin.

Plunged into a vortex of terror and conspiracy, Swagger needs to prove his innocence, while being pursued by every law enforcement agency in the country, as well as a shadowy organization on a relentless manhunt of its own, aiming to destroy the secrets Swagger has uncovered.

Jonathan Lemkin’s preposterous screenplay is loosely based on Stephen Hunter’s novel “Point of Impact” (which I have not read). When the story begins, Swagger deludes himself into thinking that he had walked away forever from his risky job after a devastating betrayal, in which he loses his buddy (a scene recreated in a well-executed pre-credits sequence). To that extent, he has sequestered himself in a remote, stunningly beautiful mountain hideaway with his loyal dog, the only friend he can trust.

Out of the blue, Swagger is approached by Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover), a retired Colonel who tells him that the country desperately needs him. Johnson claims that an assassination attempt on the U.S. President is imminent, and only Swagger’s lethal skills and savvy expertise in long-range ballistics can halt the threat.

Following movie clichs, Swagger reluctantly agrees to serve his country one more timethe last one before he really retires. What he doesn’t know is that the mission is a set-up by a dark government cabal with its own agenda.

By the time Swagger realizes that the event has been rigged, it’s too late. Suddenly, he finds himself in the headlines as the lone gunman who tried to shoot the President. He is hunted at every turn, with nowhere to hide and no one to help him, except a mystified woman he had just met (Kate Mara) and a novice FBI agent risking his career (Michael Pena, last seen in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”). With their help, Swagger engages into a desperate battle that puts everything he knows to the test.

The clock is ticking as Swagger is trying to figure out who the hit men are– before they hit him. Swagger soon realizes what we viewers knew all along, that more than his own survival is at stake, that he’s about to unveil a devastating foreign conspiracy at the heart of American power structure.

As written and directed, “Shooter” represents an uneasy marriage between old-fashioned notions, such as a belief in the American value of honor, and new ones that reflect the post 9/11 culture of far and paranoia. The movie assumes that honor, both personal and collective, has become a scarce commodity in today’s politically complicated and increasingly corrupt world. It also propagates the myth of the single, inner-directed, charismatic hero, who still believes in honor and justice. Hence, trusted by no one, hunted by an angry, frightened nation, and haunted by his own tragic past, Swagger uses every military, ballistic, and psychological skill in his possession to survive and also try to restore the kind of honor that means so much to him.

Would the public buy the notion of an individual who battles for his personal honor as well as the honor of the country he loves This was very much the notion that Stallone embodied in his “Rambo” movies, which were a reflection of the Reagan administration ideology, but that was 20 years ago.

It’s more plausible to assume that the public will buy the notion of a dark web of deceit that reaches into the very heart of the American government, one that’s been hijacked by a secret association and is only bound by its hunger for power and willingness to violate the public trust.

“Shooter” is more proficient technically than narratively or dramatically, due to the work of the gifted behind-the-scenes team, one that includes cinematographer Peter Menzies (“Die Hard With a Vengeance”), production designer Dennis Washington (“The Fugitive”), editor Conrad Buff (“Training Day”), costume designer Ha Nguyen (“Lethal Weapon 4”), and composer Mark Mancia (“Training Day”).

As writer, Jonathan Lemkin has scripted the actioner “Lethal Weapon 4,” and the thriller “The Devil’s Advocate,” two films that failed to impress. He is credited as the scribe who found a creative way to adapt Hunter’s 550-page novel into a 120-page script.

As noted, Swagger’s character first appeared in the novel “Point of Impact,” by author Stephen Hunter. That book’s popularity launched a trilogy about Swagger with two more successful novels, “Black Legion” and “Time to Hunt.” One thing is certain, if “Shooter” finds an appreciative movie public, it may become a franchise for Mark Wahlberg.