'Shooter': Off-Target, By Kurt Loder

Mark Wahlberg's a man of few words and many bullets. Also: 'Behind the Mask' and 'First Snow.'

In the 1971 vigilante classic "Dirty Harry," Clint Eastwood's angry San Francisco detective, Harry Callahan, brought muscular justice to a city that had gone soft on the scum of society. The particular scumball in that picture was a psycho serial killer, and the police brass and politicians, hung up on Miranda rights and other liberal legal annoyances, were his enablers. Now, 36 years later, the scumballs are the politicians and the top cops themselves, and in "Shooter," the man who's determined to take them down is ex-Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger, played by Mark Wahlberg with something of Harry's grim-lipped disdain and his thing for very big guns. Like the first "Dirty Harry," which begot four sequels, "Shooter" cries out to become a franchise (the ending clearly invites a follow-up). In this case, though, one installment may be enough.

Swagger is a Medal of Honor winner (possibly for lugging around that preposterous name) who was abandoned by his superiors during some kind of black op in Ethiopia. He survived; his sniper-team partner didn't. Three years later, having quit the Corps, the embittered marksman is living in a remote cabin in the mountains of Wyoming, maintaining an alarmingly extensive gun collection and keeping up his end of a running, one-sided conversation with his dog. Then a Colonel Johnson (Danny Glover) and his creepy underling, Payne (Elias Koteas), turn up at his door with an odd proposition. It seems the president is scheduled to give a series of speeches soon in Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, and Johnson has heard that a treacherous cabal intends to have the chief executive assassinated. He wants Swagger to case out each city in advance and determine which of them would offer the best conditions for a kill. Although most master snipers might immediately blow the whistle on these dubious characters, Swagger, in his grim-lipped way, agrees to help.

He concludes that Philadelphia is the place, and he agrees to stay on for the day of the president's actual appearance, during which he'll be presenting a medal to the "Bishop of Ethiopia." Swagger fails to prevent the attempted rub-out, but he does manage to get shot in the back himself. There follows a long, elaborate action sequence in which Swagger tumbles out of a high window, overpowers an FBI agent ridiculously named Nick Memphis (Michael Peña), takes off in Nick's car and winds up plowing it into the Delaware River, with all kinds of cops and FBI helicopters in furious pursuit. Moments later, as impossible as it might seem — no, as impossible as it would be — he's hitching a ride on a passing barge, making his escape.

Swagger eventually loses his pursuers, and after patching himself up with various store-bought items (sugar is a handy disinfectant), he makes his way to the Tennessee home of his late partner's sweet-but-feisty widow, Sarah (Kate Mara). Bullet-riddled and bloody, Swagger tells her his strange story and she buys it and takes him in. Slowly, he begins to suspect that there's a high-level governmental conspiracy afoot. Meanwhile, back in his FBI shop, Nick Memphis is thinking the same thing, and is burning the midnight computers to track it down.

Fans of conspiracy thrillers will immediately recognize the well-known bones upon which this one is fleshed out. (The movie is based on a book by Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter.) The sense of free-floating menace (even a billowing American flag seems faintly ominous) and the framing of a good guy by dark political forces seem derived from the 1974 assassination classic, "The Parallax View." Nick's obsessive scrutiny of the shooting tape strongly recalls Oliver Stone's 1991 "JFK." And Swagger's single-minded determination to inflict justice on the conspirators after the justice system itself proves to be of no help is, as I say, heavily "Dirty Harry." But where Clint Eastwood's iconically inexpressive cop suggested churning emotional depths, Wahlberg — whose growing skill as an actor has been one of the more interesting things in recent films — is stuck with a surly shooter who just seems not to have a lot on his mind. There's some warmth in his you-and-me-against-the-world relationship with Sarah, but since it's purposefully non-romantic (wait for the sequel), there's nowhere for their budding affection to go.

Michael Peña is a remarkably appealing actor, and nobody does sleazy better than Elias Koteas. But two of the movie's key performances are against-type experiments that fail to persuade. Danny Glover is too avuncular to be convincingly nasty, and Ned Beatty is too roly-poly amiable to play a repellent senator. (And nobody could get away with lines like, "There's always some confused soul who thinks that one man can make a difference.") Director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") handles complicated action coherently, which is not always the case in films of this sort. But the proposed fascist takeover of the U.S. government — a concept that will always have resonance in some paranoid quarters, and why not? — is too broadly drawn to be really disturbing. (Abu Ghraib gets name-checked — what would that have to do with it?)

"Shooter" seems like a wind-up Rambo toy compared to the "Bourne" movies, which have more intriguing characters, more inventive action, and jazzier locations. (Tennessee and Wyoming can't really compete with Paris and Goa.)

The movie feels like a prelude; and since Swagger is also the protagonist of two other Hunter novels, if this picture flies, they may soon follow it into production. That's a pretty big "if," though.

("Shooter" is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)

"Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon": Splatter Casting

This indie production bears a close resemblance to the 1992 Belgian film "Man Bites Dog" — one of the most disturbing and yet hilarious of serial-killer movies. Genre fans will recall that "Dog," filmed in raw, shaky black and white, followed a scruffy video crew as they in turn followed around a motor-mouthed, egomaniacal killer (played unforgettably by Benoît Poelvoorde) while shooting a documentary about his depredations. As Ben goes about his business — strangling old ladies, offing little children, doing in anybody who seems a likely prospect for post-mortem pilfery — the film crew grows increasingly fascinated by him. His professional approach to the nuts and bolts of murder, his unlikely artistic pretensions and his goofy bonhomie draw them out of their media cocoon and into his lethal orbit. Before long they become his accomplices in some truly hideous acts.

"Behind the Mask" twists this concept in an inventive way. Here the killer, a small-town oddball named Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), isn't just an uncaught serial slaughterer. His dream is actually to join the pantheon of teen-slasher characters — to become the next Freddy or Jason or Michael Myers. And the documentary film crew, led by spunky Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals, of "Spanglish"), is on hand to shoot his latest reign of terror. Leslie has already picked out a group of teen victims and arranged to lure them to a remote, empty house, where they will adhere to slasher tradition by getting high, having sex and of course dying in very gory ways.

The movie treats the famous fright-flick monsters on whom Leslie hopes to model his mayhem as real people — figures of folklore by now, maybe, but once authentically incarnate. It's a setup with considerable charm, especially when we meet Leslie's mentor, a happily retired slasher played by Scott Wilson. Unfortunately, we've seen this jolly inventory of slasher-flick clichés before, in other parodies dating back to "Scream." And with not much new to contribute, "Behind the Mask" starts running out of narrative momentum about two-thirds of the way through.

It's an unusually well-made low-budget movie, though. First-time director Scott Glosserman stages the action with genre brio; and apart from a few underlit scenes (which are videographically appropriate), cinematographer Jaron Presant sometimes approaches a level of rich, glowing color that recalls the first "Halloween" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" films. The picture also benefits from the presence of Baesel, who has some of the fizzy esprit of Sam Rockwell, and Goethals, whose quirky blonde charm is more than just an arbitrary collection of quirks. And it's nice to see Robert Englund, the original Freddy, passing through in the role of the expositional shrink, Doc Halloran — a salute to the late Donald Pleasence in the "Halloween" pictures. All of these people should work again soon, possibly together. And with a bigger budget.

"First Snow": Last Days

This unassuming film seems small at first, but its air of cloudy foreboding stays with you after it's over. Guy Pearce — an actor who never seems to do the same thing twice in assembling a character — plays Jimmy Starks, an Albuquerque flooring salesman who's planning to take a big step up and start his own business selling vintage Wurlitzer jukeboxes. Then he and his girlfriend, Deirdre, can move out of the claustrophobic tract house they currently inhabit and buy a home and property in upscale Taos. Jimmy has it all worked out.

Then his car breaks down in the desert one day, not far from a small, dusty settlement that consists of little more than a gas station, a bar and a scattering of tacky souvenir stands and other minimalist enterprises. While waiting for his car to be repaired, Jimmy approaches one of these itinerant entrepreneurs, an unlikely-looking fortune-teller named Vacaro (the invaluable J.K. Simmons, of the "Spider-Man" movies). Vacaro tells Jimmy there's some big money on its way to him, enough to launch his Wurlitzer business. But then the affable soothsayer rears back in shock — he's seen something else he'd rather not disclose. A few days later, after that money has in fact arrived, just as Vacaro predicted, Jimmy pays another visit to the man, demanding to know what else he'd foreseen in Jimmy's future.

The movie asks a familiar question: What would you do if you knew your life were soon to end? Vacaro tells Jimmy that his will last only until the first snow of the year, which is surely not far off. Desperate to thwart Vacaro's prediction, Jimmy grows paranoid, seeing threat in every stranger's glance. Soon, however, he starts focusing on the most likely source of peril, an old, mentally unstable friend named Vincent.

Years earlier, Jimmy betrayed Vincent to the police; now, after a long stretch in prison, Vincent is out again, and has started making ominous late-night phone calls to his one-time pal. As days pass and Vincent's calls become ever more unsettling, Jimmy becomes crazed with fear and anger.

In the end, having driven Deirdre away and alienated his best friend, Ed (the excellent William Fichtner, radiating fraternal concern), Jimmy comes to accept his fate, whatever it may prove to be. And in the end, it's not what he expected.

Guy Pearce, with his long hair flapping in the hot wind and a toothpick twitching on his lip, has the perfect itchy energy to power this film, and the rest of the cast provides carefully measured support. Although the movie was shot in Arizona, first-time director Mark Fergus (who co-wrote "Children of Men") has ignored the usual resplendent desert vistas in favor of a windblown tattiness that leaches into the movie's interiors — the drab living rooms, bars and offices where Jimmy spends what he's sure are his final days. In positing his suddenly circumscribed future, the movie also suggests a classy way for him to close it out — by making amends to those he's wronged over the years, and making provisions for those he loves. "First Snow" leaves you with faintly haunting thoughts, which is nice — one's always thankful for that rare movie that leaves you with any thoughts at all.

Check out everything we've got on "Shooter" and "First Snow."

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