Shooter

"Shooter" feeds on a global audience's cynicism regarding the evil that men do in the name of freedom and for a good price on crude oil. Mainly, though, it's about finding different, audience-stoking ways to shoot people in the head.

A screwy assassination thriller for these murky times, it takes half its pages from Soldier of Fortune and the other half from links provided by conspiracytheories-zapoppin.org. For a while it's entertaining to watch Mark Wahlberg as a retired Marine marksman brought out of exile only to be framed in an apparent attempt on the U.S. president's life; then to watch him on the run, bleeding and seething; and then on the hunt himself and in high kill mode, aided by a disgruntled FBI agent played by Michael Pena. Payback time comes every quarter-hour or so in director Antoine Fuqua's film, which is full of shadowy government operatives muttering about the military-industrial-oil-weasel complex overseen by a skeet-shooting Montana senator.

For years Wahlberg has been turning into a real actor, and if he ever gets the action hero role he deserves, we'll let you know. Here he plays a rather generic lone wolf, Bob Lee Swagger. The story was adapted by screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin from a Stephen Hunter book called "Point of Impact," one of three Swagger novels to date. Hunter, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Washington Post, is a man who knows and loves his weaponry. Also, he never met a conspiracy theory he didn't like.

In "Shooter," mid-manhunt, Swagger and FBI man Nick Memphis (Pena) visit a rural gun whiz played by Levon Helm of The Band. Casually the old-timer mentions that he was the one who buried the bodies of the grassy knoll shooters on Nov. 22, 1963. "I still have the shovel!" Helm says. It's a throwaway line, but in this odd blend of "Rambo" and "Three Days of the Condor," it's also the highlight.

You can sense the filmmakers trying to establish a franchise with "Shooter," a lower and more vicious variation on the "Bourne" pictures. But the two "Bourne" movies really moved; they worked on your nervous system without resorting to brutality every other shot, and they had the fiscal advantage of playing to all ideological corners of the world multiplex. I doubt the same will hold true for "Shooter." Its ideal audience is that of longtime Soldier of Fortune subscribers who may not renew because they've been feeling a little conflicted about world affairs lately.

The good cast includes Danny Glover as a U.S. colonel not to be trusted and Croatian character actor Rade Sherbedgia as a ruthless guy-behind-the-guy in a wheelchair, evoking Dr. Strangelove with every spin of his wheels. Kate Mara and Rhona Mitra do what they can with roles requiring little more than cleavage. Late in the game, in mythmaking slow-mo, Wahlberg struts away from a house full of dead and wounded bad men as it's engulfed in flames. The moment doesn't feel like the start of a franchise, merely the end of a kill-shot-crazy one-off.