Monday, November 17, 2008
"One Shot. One Kill.": Charting the Trajectory of the Marksman in Shooter(2007) and Sniper (1993)
(consider this notes for something much more interesting that I'll never get around to writing)
The only pleasure to be derived from 2007’s Shooter is how often and satisfyingly it delivers on exactly what the viewer expects to happen. There are no surprises here. When a soldier in the opening scene shows Mark Wahlberg a picture of his wife, we expect he’ll be dead within five minutes, and he is. When Ned Beatty shows up as a folksy career Senator, we immediately expect him to be corrupt, and so he is. When a rookie FBI agent (played by the excellent Michael Pena) starts researching the assassination attempt at the center of the plot, we expect he’ll uncover a vast conspiracy within the bureau, and he does. Even the details of the conspiracy itself are half-assed and tired (not surprisingly, it involves oil). What keeps the viewer from writing the film off as yet another generic action film is how skillfully and viscerally director Antoine Fuqua handles all the cliches, and how much fun the actors (especially Beatty and Danny Glover) seem to be having going through the motions.
Wahlberg stars as the absurdly named Bob Lee Swagger, an expert sniper who, if the opening scene is to be believed, has never missed. Called out of his idyllic retirement in Wyoming by the military, Swagger is asked to use his extensive knowledge of ballistics to help prevent a possible assassination attempt on the president (we know where this is going, too). After a foreign dignitary is killed in the botched attempt, Swagger finds himself the unwitting patsy in the previously mentioned conspiracy, and has to go on the run to try and clear his name-- think The Bourne Identity meets The Fugitive.
Wahlberg, who as far as I’m concerned has still yet to prove himself as an actor, is more or less a non-entity here. His idea of playing tough is saying all his lines in a low whisper and never once showing any emotion. This fits his character perfectly, though, because as the film progresses, we learn that Swagger will never once find himself in a position of even remote vulnerability. This is one of those movies like Ocean’s Eleven where the main character is always one step ahead of everyone else, and the only involvement the audience has in the story is wondering what new trick he has up his sleeve. On the other hand, the villains in the film are almost cartoonishly evil, from Elias Koteas’ scenery-chewing performance as a psychopathic agent whose name is (literally) Pain, to Danny Glover in an unusual turn as a corrupt official. All their roles seem to be designed to have no gray areas-- that would make their characters too interesting and killing them less fun-- a sentiment proven by a late scene that finds the bad guys sitting in a swank mountain cabin drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and literally laughing about how good they are at swindling the American people.
This works to Fuqua’s benefit, because it gives him a whole ninety minutes to put on a clinic on how to shoot an action movie, which he does rather admirably. Fuqua, probably best known for Training Day, is undoubtedly a skilled director, and he does a top-notch job here of building tension and giving the audience a good understanding of the geography of every scene. That he does it all without using a shaky, “documentary-style” camera is even more to his credit. After suffering through the last two entries in the Bourne series, it was nice to know that there are still action movie directors that care about whether their audience knows what’s going on in a scene.
The film’s geeky take on trajectories and ballistics is also notable, as Fuqua and company seem to take an almost fetishistic delight in describing the physics and mechanics of long-range shooting, from the effects of wind and temperature on a bullet to the pull of gravity and even the spin of the globe. What they don’t ever venture into is the psychological ramifications of taking a life from 1000 yards, or what it means to hold a position where your sole purpose it to kill. Such depths might tell us something about the characters that we can’t see on the surface, but after all, Shooter is not a film interested in telling its audience things they don’t already know.
Whereas Shooter could be considered a film interested only the science of what it means to be a marksman, 1993’s Sniper could be considered a film about the art of taking a life, and the psychic price paid in the process. Directed by Louis Llosa (who would later cement his place in cinematic history with Anaconda) the film stars the underrated Tom Berenger and Billy Zane as marine sharpshooters during the United States’ secret war in Panama. While Shooter sports a faux-complex conspiracy plot, the story of Sniper could not be more stripped down: Berenger and Zane are snipers, and they have been sent into the jungle to find and “take out” two higher-ups in the international cocaine trade.
While it’s billed as an action movie, Sniper might be better described as a psychological drama. Not much happens for the first hour, as we see how the men make their entry into the jungle and begin to stalk their target. What we do learn about is the mindset and mental strength it requires to take on the role of the silent assassin. This is conveyed in the back-and-forth between Thomas Beckett (Berenger), a veteran with 63 confirmed kills and a collection of dog tags belonging to his dead comrades, and Richard Miller (Zane), the green rookie who’s been sent into the bush to keep an eye on him. Beckett frequently talks about the “rush” that a man can get from pulling the trigger, but it’s clear that he’s become cornered into a career that no one does for long, and that the jungle has become his only home. “When the rush is over,” Miller asks him at one point, “it hurts, doesn’t it?” “The worst thing,” Beckett responds, “is not feeling the hurt anymore.”
While Sniper’s moody atmosphere and preoccupation with the psychology of the battlefield separate it from Shooter’s frenetic plot and shiny surfaces, so too do the shooting styles employed by the respective directors. Fuqua rarely shoots from the point of view of the sniper. At most he’ll show the trigger being pulled or a close up of Wahlberg’s face before cutting to the thing being shot, person or otherwise. Meanwhile, Llosa always shows us the target from the POV of the shooter, and almost always with the crosshairs of the scope visible onscreen (it seems as though a third of the movie takes place from the POV of a rifle scope). When the shot is taken, he even switches to the bullet’s point of view as it whizzes through the air toward its target. While the photography in Shooter is more concerned with the results of the act, Llosa’s photography in Sniper focuses only on the act itself, forcing the viewer to identify with the man pulling the trigger and the horrific mental consequences that follow it. That both directors seem to go out of their way to maintain their respective styles is telling, and speaks volumes about the particular mood they’re trying to cultivate.
This connection between the sniper scope and film viewing is rather convincing, and it’s an idea that Sniper plays with much more interestingly than does Shooter. A film viewer-- the passive, far-off observer that is emotionally involved in what happens onscreen at the same time that he is divorced from it, is not unlike the sniper, who watches the action unfold from a safe distance through his own screen, and yet is still forever tied emotionally to the outcome. Whether it’s the “rush” that he feels, or guilt (as in Sniper), or nothing at all (as is apparently the case in Shooter, with its inordinately high body count and protagonist that literally never misses) is ultimately up to the man pulling the trigger, the cameraman shooting the scene, and the viewer watching the screen.