Shooter: A Perfect Thriller Sniped

I have been waiting a long time for this past weekend. Years, in fact. That’s because, finally, an adaptation of one of my all-time favorite modern novelist’s works has hit the big screen in Antoine Fuqua’s Shooter…

That novelist is Stephen Hunter; his book, 1993’s Point of Impact.

No doubt many of you already know Mr. Hunter. His extraordinary success at his “day job” — as Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic (2003) for The Washington Post — has made him nearly a household name among movie buffs, especially those who like action and thriller films. And many of you must surely know of Mr. Fuqua, director of big-budget Hollywood fare, most notably the Oscar-winning Training Day from 2001. As you’ll recall, that’s the film that netted Denzel Washington the Best Actor statue…

But as much as I love movies (I pondered a career in film critique myself), and as much as I’ve come to respect Hunter’s brilliant, sometimes scathing, and hilarious reviews above all others over the years, I believe it’s in his novels where the true breadth and depth of his stunningly under-recognized talent shines. Hunter’s a high-octane storyteller of the highest order — a dark-horse master of the thriller-writer’s craft.

Ironically, I believe it’s his excellence in film review that, in part, infuses his novels with greatness. Precisely the same eye, ear, and sense of pace and scene that make him such an incisive critic of movies — especially violent ones (his compendium of such reviews, Violent Screen, is a classic) — make him perhaps more qualified than any other working thriller author today to write novels that are in tune with the modern storytelling ethos.

And in my humble opinion once again, every time he picks up a pen, Hunter makes better-known thriller “masters” like Ludlum and Clancy his bitches…

Too bad he didn’t write the screenplay for Shooter. If he had, I’m certain that my long wait would’ve been worth it. As it stands, the movie turns a great novel with the subtlest, most genre-appropriate of subtexts into a Hollywood wet dream: a slick, mass-appeal movie that shamelessly sets its cross hairs on politics, instead of entertainment.

(WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead. If you want to see Shooter without knowing how utterly short it falls of its inspired source material, stop reading now.)

Missing the Master’s Mark

Before anything else, let me say this: If I had never read Point of Impact, I’d have liked Shooter a lot better.

Now, don’t get me wrong — as it is, the movie’s worth seeing, if only for the guns, chases, pyrotechnics, and sniper-style kill shots. But knowing all that Shooter COULD have been if only they’d stuck closer to Hunter’s incredible story made me see only the film’s myriad flaws — not its few fortes (there aren’t many of them)…

Here are the story elements the film and the book have in common:

  • A retired Marine Corps master sniper, Gunnery Sgt. Bob Lee Swagger, has taken to the hills to be left alone with his dog, his guns, and his melancholy sometime after a mission that ended with the death of his spotter (snipers work in 2-man teams — a shooter and a spotter). Swagger is lured out of this self-imposed exile by a shady colonel on a mission of his own: ostensibly, anticipating and stopping an attempt on the president’s life by a foreign sniper from far outside the Secret Service’s security radius during a scheduled public speech
  • Duty transforms into deception when the devious colonel frames Swagger as the perpetrator of the assassination attempt, rather than its neutralizer. While Bob looks on, the sniper’s shot flies, killing an archbishop standing next to the president on the podium instead of the commander in chief himself. Meanwhile, Swagger is set up at the scene and shot in the chest by the conspirators
  • They underestimate their patsy’s resiliency, however. By a combination of luck, quick wits, and sheer grit, Swagger survives the attempt to kill him, disarms a down-on-his-luck FBI agent named Nick Memphis, and flees in the agent’s car, and is hunted by all the law in America. Enlisting the aid of his former spotter’s widow, Swagger gets well, teams up with the now-disgraced agent, and begins to unravel a mystery that disguises within a high-profile attempt on the president’s life the assassination of a foreign archbishop with a devastating secret
  • Swagger makes a plan, comes back to kick ever-loving ass on those who framed him to be the most wanted and hated man in America (and killed his dog, to boot), saves the girl, redeems the FBI agent’s existence, and clears his own name in the process.

As you can see, there are some great story elements to both Point of Impact and Shooter. But Hunter’s novel is 10 times better than Fuqua’s film. It’s more complex, but tighter somehow. In the book, we see how Swagger is profiled and manipulated at every turn by a disgraced psychiatrist in the colonel’s employ. We also see this doctor defect from the covert team to join Swagger and Memphis to provide the evidence that ultimately sinks the colonel and his henchmen. This isn’t in the movie.

In the book, we see how a seemingly routine investigation of what looks like a drug-related murder Memphis is conducting before he botches the most important security detail of his life provides crucial evidence of the real conspiracy the colonel and his minions are trying to keep quiet. Also, Memphis’ bureau connections, detective skills, and people-handling savvy are vital to Swagger’s execution of his plan to get his life back — and to avenge his dog. None of this is in the movie.

In the book, we’re shown a cat-and-mouse game between the colonel’s team and Swagger as the sniper pieces together the identity of the man who took the deadly shot on the archbishop — which is now his only chance at finding (and killing) the colonel. The triggerman is a fellow world-class shooter who has himself been so far underground for so long that he’s only known and reachable through the arcane world of guns-related publishing. Again, not in the movie.

Also in the book, Bob Lee has secretly carried a 15-year torch for the still-beautiful widow of his former spotter and best friend. Her ambivalence erodes as she nurses him back to health, and their newfound love gives him the strength and passion he needs to persevere — while also providing the bad guys a way to make Bob vulnerable. In the movie, only three years has transpired since the spotter’s death and Swagger’s recruitment by the colonel, and the sniper and the widow don’t even really hook up! Where’s the motivation in that?

Finally, Shooter utterly squanders Hunter’s brilliant finale from Point of Impact — a courtroom cliffhanger in which the sly old Gunny from the backwoods of Arkansas proves he’s once again the alpha male tactician and strategist…

Bottom line: Shooter needs another 40 minutes of screen time, a director who’s secure enough with his skill and his story not to mind a little exposition between explosions, and a script that leverages all the rich layers of intrigue inherent to Point of Impact without bogging viewers down with too much firearms and military esoterica…

In case you’re wondering, I’m telling you all this for two reasons: First, because I love Stephen Hunter’s work and I hate to see it blasphemed by a cinematic shortchanging. I’d hate to think that anyone not familiar with Hunter’s fiction would think that Shooter is representative of the author’s best work. It isn’t — not by a long shot.

And second, because Shooter is the most egregious example I’ve ever seen of a great novel with only a mildly political subtext being UTTERLY HIJACKED and transformed into nothing more than a campaign message…

Missing (the Point) by a Long Shot

Basically, Point of Impact is about a return to an American archetype that has been hunted nearly to extinction by consumerism, ignorance, and the genteel sensibilities of the modern e-generation. It’s about how one man with guts, gumption, and guns can make a difference, set things right, find justice, expose evil, and gain redemption in a nation that basically still values honor, country, and bravery…

Shooter is about using all of these prototypically American notions to achieve not simply entertainment, but what it clearly considers the noblest purpose of film: political victory. Director Fuqua’s polemic-in-a-film-can isn’t about Hunter’s rich and archetypal characters at all — his development of them is so laughably shallow it’s ridiculous. Those cardboard-cutout characters seemingly exist on screen only to expose the evils of Big Oil, the Republican Party, and the current administration.

Scriptwriter Jonathan Lemkin pares Hunter’s magnificently rich story down to its most basically compelling elements — then once the viewer is hooked, it downshifts into clichéd, anti-hero-as-politico-moral-avenger tripe. True, both Point of Impact and Shooter use atrocities committed by covert factions of the U.S. government as key story elements. In the book, it’s the murder of innocents by U.S. “black ops” and their minions in Central America. In the movie, it’s the mass slaughter of an African village to facilitate the installation of an oil pipeline — an endeavor that somehow obscenely profits a Montana senator (Ned Beatty) who looks surprisingly like Dick Cheney…

But in the novel’s case, Swagger destroys the paper and videotape evidence of these actions — even though they’d prove his innocence — in order to prevent them from dishonoring the country and its soldiers! The atrocities become just another vehicle to expose the true patriotism and honor of the protagonist. Not so in Shooter.

Bottom line: Given the current political landscape in this country, Shooter is shrewd moviemaking. Director Fuqua and screenwriter Lemkin deserve applause. They’ve made the perfect action-thriller for a nation whose political pendulum is swinging to the left. It perfectly serves the goals of an activist, leftist, and green Hollywood. And the reviews prove it — you’d never know how mediocre this movie is by the fawning praise it’s getting from left-leaning movie critics across the nation.

Too bad that to make their hackneyed points, they chose to hijack, neuter, twist, prune, and sterilize a truly great American thriller whose only real agenda is to entertain — and perhaps to reminisce a bit about a time when men were gun-toting men in the Land of the Free…

I’m sorry, Mr. Hunter. Shooter would’ve been great if only they’d done it your way.

Critically and analytically,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

March 27, 2007