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MOVIE REVIEW

The marksman

Mark Wahlberg is on target as a sniper with attitude in grim 'Shooter'

Mark Wahlberg (right) is special forces sniper Bob Lee Swagger and Michael Peña is an FBI agent in "Shooter." (kimberley french)

How to describe "Shooter"? Mark Wahlberg's bid to become the next Clint Eastwood ? An action-film Humvee with a "support our troops" ribbon magnet slapped on the back?

How about "Rambo" as Al Franken might have imagined it?

That's about right: The new film from "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua -- he's what you'd get if you put an auteurist on steroids -- is a stylish but essentially businesslike smash-and-crasher about a special forces sniper who gets used by a shadow arm of the US government, only to come back for bloody revenge.

The movie stops short of accusing the villains of masterminding 9/11, but maybe just because they lacked the manpower. For assassinations, Third World genocide, oil-pipeline skullduggery, they're your go-to guys. And up against them is only Bob Lee Swagger (Wahlberg).

Did novelist Stephen Hunter come up with that name using some kind of NASCAR randomizing algorithm? The author (and Pulitzer-winning film critic for The Washington Post) wrote "Point of Impact" back in 1993, when Bob Lee was an aging Vietnam vet; the novel's success led to two more books featuring the character and eventually this long-in-development film.

It's too late for Bob Lee to have served in 'Nam, of course, so the filmmakers elect to plop him in northeast Africa in the early part of the new millennium, where a mission protecting US troops goes awry. "Bob the Nailer" -- that's how he's referred to in hushed tones throughout the armed forces -- returns to the States, holes up in a back country shack with his hound dog, grows a mullet, and broods. The movie calls the country he served in Ethiopia, but emotionally it's Iraq and you'd be a fool to think otherwise.

A government suit named Johnson (Danny Glover ) arrives three years later and plays on Bob Lee's dormant patriotism: The president of the United States has been threatened with assassination, and they need a shooter to catch a shooter. Or so they say. What the movie needs, actually, is a fugitive with jungle-hillbilly survival skills: Harrison Ford crossbred with Li'l Abner.

Wahlberg brings a grim purposefulness to his role, and he doesn't grandstand or preen. Personally, I prefer the actor when he has his thinking cap on, as in "The Departed ," or when he's at a dimbulb loss ("I Heart Huckabees, " "Boogie Nights "), but he's eminently watchable here. Bob Lee's a man with a serious talent, and while the movie fetishizes the hardware and the long-distance exploding-head shots, the character doesn't have the time to do likewise. There's a lot of pink mist in "Shooter," though, which will excite certain boys of many ages. All I can say is better here than in the Zapruder film.

Bob Lee's an awfully glum fellow to hang a movie on, so "Shooter" gives him Nick Memphis (Michael Peña , the locksmith in "Crash"), an FBI newbie who figures out all is not what it seems. There needs to be a girl, too, so the hero briefly takes refuge with a late colleague's fiancée (Kate Mara , red-haired, wide-eyed, handy with a shotgun). For sadistic villains, we get character actors Elias Koteas and Rade Serbedzija , respectively drooling and sighing fatalistically.

Look fast and you'll even spot dear old Ned Beatty as a porcine senator. Wahlberg's Bob Lee seems he knows how to handle all these folks except the girl.

The film moves at a clip and smartly alternates mayhem and drama. It's as professional as Bob Lee himself and I was never bored, even watching a storyline I've seen in countless variations. All that's new, or new for the first time in a few decades, is that unfocused anger against the people in charge. "Shooter" carries a heady whiff of post-Iraq populist brimstone -- a resentment over the fact that, no matter what the government says, they're not acting in the interests of you, me, America, or the world.

Bob Lee, in other words, is Billy Jack. And he's headed for Washington.

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