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Shooter: Off the mark 

Mark Wahlberg takes aim and misfires

Having secured a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Departed, perhaps Mark Wahlberg will stop overcompensating. You can appreciate his uphill battle to be taken seriously as an actor, having to live down his early career fronting Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, not to mention the underwear modeling.

Since Boogie Nights and Three Kings, Wahlberg has credibly established himself as a reliable performer as all-American guys, tough enough to be two-fisted action heroes but innocent enough for dim comedic roles. Nevertheless, he often acts like he's got something to prove about his manhood, from portraying the superendowed Dirk Diggler to his posturing, gay-baiting tough guy in Four Brothers.

In Shooter, his character's name practically drips testosterone: Bob Lee Swagger. As an expert marksman for covert government missions, he's forever toting the biggest, longest guns imaginable. After Shooter's prologue, we find him in the American mountains, practically living a beer commercial. He stands against backdrops of fir trees and mighty peaks, and has a loyal dog that can fetch him Budweiser from the fridge. (Really.) Wahlberg's Swagger takes point for the film itself, which proves coolly professional in some areas and completely boneheaded in others.

Shooter's strongest aspects probably derive from its origins in Stephen Hunter's novel, Point of Impact. The writers have clearly done their homework on the craft of being a sniper, with convincing details about ballistics and marksmanship at their fingertips. The first scenes, depicting a mission in Africa, feature Swagger taking aim at potential "hostiles" while his spotter relays such variables as wind speed. Swagger may be almost supernaturally effective at turning distant combatants' heads into red mist, but director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) conveys how long-distance gunplay is more than just point and shoot.

Three years after the mission went wrong, Swagger's living in Marlboro Man seclusion when the mysterious Col. Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) recruits him to help avert a potential presidential assassination, which may involve a sniper shooting from a mile away. Swagger scopes out the most likely sites for kill shots but discovers, too late, that he's being set up as the fall guy in a complex murder and cover-up. Cleverly, the conspirator's cover story also features both a fake media hero and a bumbling scapegoat, the latter being junior FBI agent Nick Memphis (Michael Peña), who loses his gun to the fugitive Swagger, but increasingly believes him to be innocent.

As Swagger, Wahlberg affirms that he's no chameleon actor who disappears into roles, but more of a "presence" performer who plays the same basic persona with minor modulations. In Shooter, he fares best in scenes without dialogue, dressing gunshot wounds on the run or assembling makeshift medical IVs. If we ever need, say, another Charles Bronson, he'd be a better candidate than any former wrestler.

Unfortunately, Shooter matches every canny observation and bit of taut storytelling with eye-rolling lapses, such as Swagger's miraculous escapes from the nationwide manhunt. When he preaches the value of keeping cover while fighting enemies, we can't imagine why he makes daring escapades through wide-open spaces in broad daylight. If Fuqua's camera can shoot him so well, so could the death squads on his tail.

Shooter relies on so many clichés that you can cherry-pick your pet peeves. He finds an ally in a deceased buddy's girlfriend (Kate Mara), a third-grade teacher in Kentucky who drawls lines such as, "You'd best call me 'Sarah'" or "It ain't much, but it shoots true." Because, being a Southerner, she can't possibly speak proper English. Maybe she teaches Holly Hunter impersonation classes. Both Mara and Rade Serbedzija (who plays a secondary villain) have played secondary roles on "24," which only draws attention to the tiredness of Shooter's twists. On "24," at least the clichés are fresh.

Like seemingly every political thriller of the Vietnam/Watergate era, Shooter features compromised, untouchable forces in the U.S. government who betray the hero and mislead the public. Whether on paper or film, the genre espouses an almost all-consuming suspicion of elected officials and the military-industrial complex. Historian Richard Hofstadter found real-world strains in the American electorate of what he called the "paranoid style of American politics," views characterized by "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy," words that could be splashed on Shooter's posters.

When Ned Beatty, as a porcine U.S. senator, makes speeches about how there are "no Democrats or Republicans, just haves and have-nots," the film seems to deliberately echo – or plagiarize – the actor's nearly identical sermon from Network. A flag-saluting patriot who also opposes such a corrupt system, Swagger makes increasingly unconvincing choices about how to fight his powerful enemies. Shooter's themes about citizenship become less and less coherent, until it seems to espouse a kind of free-floating anarchy seemingly identical to the bad guys' might-makes-right ethos.

You can't expect serious political philosophy from a film such as Shooter, which admittedly achieves its primary goal of blowing up houses and helicopters with billowing fireballs. But there's something particularly thoughtless about its paranoid style and unreflective, I'm-the-Decider--level convictions about the evils of government institutions. If such huge conspiracies exist, they definitely want voters to believe their involvement doesn't matter. Shooter's sweeping political cynicism seems like the wussy way out.

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