After a military mission in Africa goes bad, Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger and his spotter are deemed expendable and left for dead. Swagger survives and, bitter toward the government that abandoned him, retires to the mountains of Wyoming with his guns and someone who understands the meaning of loyalty: his dog.
Three years pass. And then Colonel Isaac Johnson shows up on his doorstep, imploring Swagger to use his knowledge of long-range ballistics to help him thwart a presidential assassination. But it's a set-up. The brooding sniper's service gets rewarded with a pair of gunshot wounds and an all-out manhunt as the hunter quickly becomes the prey.
Luckily for Swagger, he encounters rookie FBI agent Nick Memphis during his escape and, while stealing the man's car, professes his innocence. That leads Memphis to do some sleuthing, re-examine the evidence and become the fugitive's greatest ally along with Sarah, the widow of Swagger's spotter. The only question is whether they can set the record straight before the government or its rogue faction of assassins catches up with them.
Memphis seeks answers in a church. Swagger jokes that the only person foolish enough to accept a suicide mission would be a Muslim holding out for his 70 virgins. An archbishop is assassinated. An African tribe reportedly refused to relocate because of a superstition involving spirit gods.
While not spiritual in a religious sense, Swagger endures a crisis when his foundational values of duty, loyalty and patriotism feel empty. (A government official remarks, "Some people don't know what to do when their belief system collapses. Bob Lee is one of those.")
Sarah wears tops with plunging necklines. The camera catches her in her bra from behind right before she is attacked and bound, giving the violence a sexualized edge.
There's an enormous body count, often bloody with men dying from gunshot wounds to the head. Soldiers pick off enemies from afar. One American gets drilled by a chopper rocket. A prominent leader is assassinated. After an attempt on Swagger's life leaves two bullets in him, he spits up blood and later doctors himself MacGyver-style with crude instruments. Escape from the city requires that he assault an FBI agent and rough up street cops, throwing one through a plate-glass window.
The camera leers at graphic shootings, several at close range and others that spray snow-covered mountains with harsh crimson. Other bad guys get stabbed in the back, garroted, knifed in the throat, disemboweled by a shotgun blast and incinerated by napalm. A man puts a gun under his chin and pulls the trigger. Thugs strap a guy into a harness and torture him until he talks, then stage his suicide, trying to make him shoot himself in the head.
Swagger's quest for answers and vindication quickly turns to bloodlust as he unleashes a malicious assault on his enemies, capped by a massive explosion. At one point he severs a man's arm from long range, and Sarah finishes off the crippled brute (the man who assaulted her) by vengefully emptying a handgun into his chest. Revenge is a motivating factor for Swagger, too, who uses excessive force and takes lives as if he were plowing through levels of a point-and-shoot video game.
[Spoiler Warning] When the bad guys get released for lack of concrete evidence, the presiding officer tells Swagger sadly, "This isn't the wild west where you can clean up the streets with a gun, even though sometimes that's exactly what's needed." It's as if he's giving Bob Lee the unspoken OK to play vigilante, which Swagger does with relish.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Swagger drinks Budweiser and even shares some with his dog. To knock himself out, he inhales the fumes from pressurized cans of whipped cream (a form of "huffing" begging to be imitated by curious young viewers).
Other Negative Elements
A desperate Swagger drives recklessly, and steals a car and clothes. The filmmakers hold the establishment in utter contempt. They mock federal employees ("We work for the government; we're not that good at our jobs"), berate leaders as murderers who trade lives for oil, and blame the military for the world's ills.
Forget about balance, it's all venom and nasty barbs—a cathartic escape for closet anarchists eager to rage against the machine. [Spoiler Warning] In a climactic moment, director Antoine Fuqua seems to think that American moviegoers are so angry with their representatives that they would cheer the grisly, cold-blooded murder of one ("I'm a United States Senator," the villain proudly tells Swagger, as if invoking his title will save his life. "Exactly," the sniper replies before defiantly putting a bullet in the man's head). Also, the writers treat the JFK conspiracy theory as fact.
It's understatement, then, to say that Shooter places no faith in the system or our leaders, and seems bent on stirring up paranoia and distrust. Fuqua told mtv.com, "We couldn't have made [this movie] six years ago. We couldn't have made it right after 9/11 either. [But now] we keep sending troops [to Iraq] and, whether you believe in it or not, we still don't know why we are there really. We know that after 9/11 Bruce Willis and Arnold [Schwarzenegger] aren't going to come and save the buildings—that's not going to happen anymore. Crowds want something that feels more real." Fair enough, but this is a grim, antisocial response.
"As a director, [Antoine Fuqua] has a very uncompromising view," producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura explained. "With Antoine, when the story is emotional it's going to be really emotional. When it's violent it's going to be really violent. If it's mysterious it's very, very mysterious. The whole experience of the movie is heightened." That's just a roundabout way of saying Fuqua takes things to extremes. That includes violence, language ... and an extreme need for audiences to suspend disbelief.
Indeed, Shooter is one of the most testosterous movies of the year so far. Don't grab a dictionary. That's my term for action flicks that are both preposterous and teeming with testosterone. Testosterous. You know the genre. Large body count. Lots of pyrotechnics. Buzz-worthy fatalities that fans savor for their own twisted, visceral reward. And don't forget the ludicrous plot, illogically omniscient hero and caricatured villains who exist simply to get viewers from one explosive chase-and-destroy sequence to the next. Think Rambo, Die Hard, 007, Schwarzenegger's complete action canon and pretty much anything starring Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.
One defining characteristic of a testosterous movie is that it will feel like a hybrid of other films. After all, how many different ways can Hollywood set up the ol' one-volatile-man-against-the-system story? Usually it begins with a dead partner or high-level double-cross that drives the hero to clear his name or, if he's really peeved, exact revenge. Shooter has all of those elements and more. In the end, it feels like First Blood and The Bourne Identity cobbled together and polished off with a brutal dash of Commando. The shootings are frequent and bloody. Yet even then, it's hard to say which felt more unsettling upon reflection, that violence or the movie's validation of vengeance, wholesale disrespect for government and endorsement of vigilante justice.