All of these guys-living-off-the-grid-action-revenge movies are starting to look alike. You know... someone screws up or gets screwed -- by the Army or the FBI or whatever. He goes off the grid and ends up living on some mountain where no one -- except the Army or the FBI or whatever -- can find him. Then he's cajoled back into service, then everything goes wrong. Willis, Schwarzenegger, they've done it.Now it's Mark Wahlberg's turn. Having achieved A-list status, Wahlberg can definitely hold a film on his own. And for a while, his grim-faced character, the former Marine gunnery sergeant Bob Lee Swagger, holds Shooter with just a stare -- a long, quiet one, with no emotion attached. He's already gone through the mill, losing his spotter partner during the botched "peacekeeping mission" that starts the film and has the U.S. government abandon him under hostile fire in a far-off land.

But three years later, they need him again -- and they find him, up on a mountain, with only a beer-drinking dog for company. (The film's trailers make it look like he has a girlfriend up there; he doesn't.) Please come back to help us, whispers Col. Johnson (Danny Glover, who oddly whispers his entire role). You know everything about shooting, and we know that someone's going to shoot the president. And only you can tell us how this unknown person will do it, only you can help us stop him.

A rather ludicrous plot, but one that starts to solidify when the camera closes in on Swagger's face, that face with no emotion, and Wahlberg, without saying a word, lets you know that there's a great deal of turmoil going on inside.

Based on the 1993 Stephen Hunter novel Point of Impact, the film quickly turns all expectations on end, making Swagger not a hero, but a victim. Set up, shot, and made a fall guy, he goes on the run from all sorts of authority figures, and for a time, Shooter threatens to turn into yet another of those standard revenge films that we've all had plenty of in our movie-going diets.

Then things get not only interesting, they become an exercise in compelling film-watching. Not just because of Wahlberg's work (although he absolutely nailed the part), but because of the characters around him. Glover's whispering gimmick runs out of steam, but the introduction of a "disgraced FBI agent" named Nick Memphis (Michael Pena, Nic Cage's costar in World Trade Center) gives the film a huge boost. Pena has a face that reveals even less than Wahlberg's about what his character might be thinking. Is he angry? Is he being mischievous? That's hard to tell, but what's clear is that Memphis knows something's amiss concerning the Swagger case. He also knows, after being told by an associate (the frighteningly beautiful Rhona Mitra) that he's running around asking too many questions about it.

There's also a wonderfully sweaty and slimy performance by Elias Koteas, and a sly and slinky and eventually kick-ass one by Kate Mara, as, at one point, Swagger's only friend. And there's a joyously scene-stealing few minutes of cameo time with Band drummer Levon Helm as an arms expert.

It's at about the halfway mark that Wahlberg, till then rather quiet and passive, opens it up and turns it on and announces what he's going to do to the people who did what they did to him.

In a recent interview, Wahlberg -- talking about himself -- not his character, said, "I believe in conspiracy theories. But I'm also a church-going, God-loving guy, and I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. So on Sunday and Monday, I'm believing that everybody's being honest, doing the right thing. But come the middle of the week, after reading the newspaper and watching the news, you can't help but wonder what's really going on out there."

So maybe there's some thoughtful realism going into his acting here. By the time the film turns into a paranoid anti-FBI (or is it an anti-delusional hardcore zealot?) affair, the good guys and bad guys are going after each other. The bad guys have big guns, but the good guys have big guns, knives, tear gas, pipe bombs and napalm. And even though he never says it, you just know that Wahlberg's Swagger loves the smell of napalm in the afternoon.

Worth $9
Rated R
Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Michael Pena, Danny Glover, Elias Koteas

Buffalo Field Campaign 25th Anniversary Roadshow @ Magic Lantern Theatre

Tue., Oct. 4, 7-8:30 p.m.
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