Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Shooter’: First-rate Action Thriller

March 14, 2021 Updated: March 14, 2021

R | | Action, Drama, Thriller | 23 March 2007 (USA)

Bob Lee Swagger is the name of the character Mark Wahlberg plays in 2007’s “Shooter.” Swagger’s the hero of a long series of books by author Stephen Hunter. Nicknamed “Bob the Nailer,” he’s an ex-Marine corps sniper with 391 kills and supernatural quick-draw abilities to rival the Sundance Kid. Bob Lee’s dad Earl, basso profundo-voiced and similarly gun-talented, was a lawman, and has a whole series unto himself.

Hunter appears to cater to a very specific readership demographic: namely Southern gun owners. One has to assume from the tone of the books that Hunter himself has a certain nostalgia regarding the gothic aspects of the Jim Crow era, with Antebellum undertones. It’s the same atmosphere that was excellently portrayed in 1988’s “Mississippi Burning.”

Though there’s no outright pornography, the books have a certain salaciousness that brings to mind the AC/DC lyric, “Dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap,” and while much therein is morally reprehensible, Bob Lee and Earl are true, upstanding heroes, bordering on caricature of the “strong, silent type.” Both have high moral standards, and were Marine veterans of the Vietnam and World War II, respectively. The books are also exceptionally well-written potboilers—impossible to put down once you start reading.

That’s the Books, Here’s the Movie

“Shooter” is an exhilarating, big-budget, military-and-law-enforcement-flavored action thriller about political corruption and betrayal on the one hand, and Bob Lee’s Marine corps integrity on the other, starting with Bob out in the bush, sniping bad guys on a black op-gone-wrong in Ethiopia.

When the mission is derailed by an unmarked helicopter gunship attacking his sniper hide-site, resulting in the death of his best friend and spotter, Donnie (Lane Garrison), Bob Lee returns home, furious at the military and governmental double-crosses. He retires, and holes up on a mountaintop in Arkansas, with lots of guns and a dog that fetches beer out of the fridge.

man, dog, woodpile in Shooter
Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) at his Arkansas mountain home in “Shooter.” (Paramount Pictures)

When Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) shows up and requests Bob’s assistance as a sniper-defense consultant to the Secret Service to prevent a possible long-range shot at the president, Bob initially turns the offer down. But when the Colonel plays the patriot card: “Do we allow America to be ruled by thugs?”—Bob can’t resist. As Bob later explains his knee-jerk patriotic tendency, “ I ain’t real proud of it. And I ain’t ashamed either.”

5 men stand around map in Shooter
(L–R) Danny Glover, Elias Koteas, Mark Wahlberg, Rade Serbedzija, and Jonathan Walker in “Shooter.” (Paramount Pictures)

Bob is then subsequently double-crossed again, and framed in an assassination conspiracy involving dirty cops, a dirty-as-they-come Senator (Ned Beatty), the Colonel, and some higher-ups in the FBI. He’s forced to go on the lam, while trying to uncover the evildoers and bring them to vigilante justice.

Excellent Supporting Cast

“Shooter” is arguably the movie that put Michael Peña on the map. Here he plays irrepressible rookie FBI agent Nick Memphis, who Swagger disarms and smacks into the middle of next week.

FBI agent and colleagues working crime scene in Shooter
Agent Nick Memphis (Michael Peña), in “Shooter.” (Paramount Pictures)

When reviewed by his superiors about letting Swagger get away and asked if he’s embarrassed, he replies, “I don’t feel embarrassed. A Force Recon Marine Scout Sniper disarmed me three weeks out of the academy. If anything… I feel lucky to be alive.” Swagger later recruits Memphis as his spotter.

two men, one rifle in Shooter
Agent Nick Memphis (Michael Peña, L) and former Marine gunnery sergeant Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg), in “Shooter.” (Paramount Pictures)

Kate Mara plays Sarah Fenn, the ex-wife of Swagger’s deceased spotter Donnie, a former nurse trainee who quit because she couldn’t bear the sight of blood. Swagger runs from the law with a bullet in his chest to her doorstep, saying (regarding the shotgun she’s about to pull on him) “Look, if you’re going to do it, just get it over with. I ain’t got nowhere else to go.”

man in grey shirt with bloody arm in Shooter
Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) on the run from the FBI, in “Shooter.” (Paramount Pictures)

Forced to face her fears, she comes through splendidly. In the books, this section had a salacious twist, but it’s thankfully deleted here, and while Mara and Wahlberg have strong chemistry, it’s righteous. She of course becomes Swagger’s exploitable Achilles heel.

man and woman embrace in Shooter
Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) and Sarah Fenn (Kate Mara), in “Shooter.” (Paramount Pictures)

Thirdly, former drummer of The Band, Levon Helms, plays a legendary gunsmith codger with a sly penchant for suddenly grabbing people’s hands without their permission, doing a warp-speed massage of the muscles, bones, and tendons, ascertaining in milliseconds whether that hand’s handled guns, and to what degree.

Wrap Up

The corrupt politics and cynicism are rancid and disheartening; “There ain’t no Sunnis and Shia, no Democrats or Republicans; there’s just haves and have-nots,” snickers Ned Beatty’s Senator Meachum.

two men and blue helicopter in Shooter
Senator Meachum (Ned Beatty, L) and Colonel Johnson (Danny Glover), in “Shooter.” (Paramount Pictures)

For sheer action, power, combat, military spec ops coolness of the Recon Marine sort, however, “Shooter” is tremendous boy fun with its big-bore rifles, sidearms, improvised field surgery, and “Killer Egg” (MH-6 Little Bird) gunships.

sniper surrounded by FBI agents in Shooter
Bob Swagger (Mark Wahlberg), in a winterized sniper ghillie suit apprehended by FBI agents, in “Shooter.” (Paramount Pictures)

Although the later chase sequences and vehicle destruction mayhem are standard, and the one-guy-against-many-trained-killers is almost comic-book level—that’s the nature of Bob the Nailer. He’s the baddest, and boys appreciate that one guy who can prevail against all odds to an almost superhuman degree. 

With so many of Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee books out there, I’m amazed more haven’t yet been made into movies by now.

man with sniper rifle in Shooter
Movie poster for “Shooter.” (Paramount Pictures)

‘Shooter’
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Danny Glover, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Elias Koteas, Ned Beatty, Rade Serbedzija, Jonathan Walker
Running Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Rating: R
Release Date: March 23, 2007
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch