Pulitzer prize-winning film critic Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post has seen a lot of movies, both good and bad, and this film, based on his highly cinematic novel Point of Impact, shows an able, if somewhat derivative, sense of narrative propulsion. It’s a little bit Rambo, a little bit Death Wish, a little bit Under Seige, a little bit Die Hard.
The premise almost sounds like a parody of a movie pitch: Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg), a crack shot of a Marine sharpshooter becomes disillusioned after he and his best pal and spotter are abandoned by their commanders and the pal is killed. When some big shots track him down in his cabin in the woods to tell him they need his help to stop an assassination attempt on the President, he agrees to go back into service. But he is betrayed again, and set up as the fall guy for an attempted assassination in a complex conspiracy that reaches into government and big business. When everything closes in on him, he has to rely on the generic pretty girl with spunk — the widow of his spotter (Kate Mara), the generic wiseman/expert who knows the secrets (a specialist who’s even deeper in the woods than Swagger was) and a brand new FBI agent (Michael Pena of Crash) with a fresh perspective who doesn’t buy the too-convenient story about how Swagger planned to kill the President.
The idea satisfies a deep-seated fantasy. We all think we deserve an apology from someone and we all want our special talents to be discerned and appreciated by people in positions of authority. The big shots seek Swagger out to say they’re sorry and they need him. They acknowledge that he’s the best there is.
And then, after they betray him and try to kill him, Swagger (and we, through him) gets that oh-so-nice “Who IS that guy?” gratification of outsmarting those high-powered but corrupt guys at the top. And then he gets revenge — with extreme prejudice.
Some people will find that satisfying, too, but I found it over the top, thuggish, and brutal. The movie’s strengths are its appealing hero, a performance of surprising warmth and humor by Pena, and some clever use of expertise, especially in Swagger’s explanation of the elements that have to be factored in to hit an extra-long-range target (everything, including the rotation of the earth). And those colorful flags snapping in the breeze? They’re not there for decoration.
But then there is its clunky obviousness: The name has to be Swagger? And he has to walk toward us in slo-mo? And the bad guys have to cackle over their total domination and corruption? And there have to be not one, not two, but three explaining villains? And the overheatedness gets out of control by the end, with Swagger taking too many laws and too many lives into his own hands.
Parents should know that this movie has extreme and intense action-style peril and violence with some very graphic and disturbing images. Characters are are shot, stabbed, impaled, tortured, and punched. Many are injured and killed, including a dog. Characters are assassinated and a character commits suicide on-screen. There is a pro-vigilante aspect to some of the killing that audience members may find disturbing. They may also be disturbed by references to genocide, rape, torture, and political corruption. Characters smoke, drink, and use strong language. There are some sexual references, including rape, and a character wears skimpy clothing. And there is an Anna Nicole Smith joke that was clearly made before her death.
Families who watch this movie should talk about whether and when it is appropriate to take the law into your own hands.
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate In the Line of Fire and paranoia classics like The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The Pelican Brief, and Under Siege. And they will enjoy the book, and sequels Time to Hunt and Black Light by Stephen Hunter.