In “Shooter,” an action-thriller premiering Tuesday on USA, Ryan Phillippe plays Bob Lee Swagger — who is not a televangelist, as his name might suggest. Rather, he is an elite Marine sniper who goes on the lam after being framed in a tangled geopolitical plot.
Based on the largely forgotten 2007 film starring Mark Wahlberg and the novel “Point of Impact” by Stephen Hunter, the series (executive produced by Wahlberg) was originally scheduled to debut in July but was postponed following the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, then again after the shooting deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
One can understand why executives at USA were squeamish about the pilot. It opens with a gun firing at the camera as Phillippe explains, in detailed voice-over, the three ways a bullet can kill someone and then cuts to images of the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lee Harvey Oswald. The episode also includes multiple shots of (imagined) bullets barreling toward the president’s head, and a level of detail about sightlines, wind speed and trajectories that borders on the fetishistic.
It’s a bit much, even without killing sprees in the news. And with its conspiratorial themes, graphically visualized “kill shots” and meddling Russian agents, “Shooter” is not exactly what most would consider pleasant escapism at this particular moment.
But the biggest problem with “Shooter” isn’t its uncomfortable topicality, it’s that the show has virtually no point of view regarding the complicated issues it brings to the fore, from the plight of returning veterans to covert military operations to, yes, gun culture.
The series aims to be something like a cross between “American Sniper” and “The Fugitive,” a combination that sounds pretty enticing on paper. But “Shooter” has neither the emotional heft of the former nor the taut suspense of the latter. Instead, it falls short as both pure entertainment and as social commentary.
Even the guns turn out to be a kind of red herring. As “Shooter” progresses, it evolves into a rather conventional political thriller, with the usual mix of corrupt government agents, shadowy conspiracies and implausible plot twists.
When we first meet Bob Lee (he goes by both names, which never doesn’t sound funny), he’s living a life of content isolation with his wife, Julie (Shantel VanSanten), and daughter at their suspiciously picturesque oceanfront home in the Pacific Northwest.
Despite some 210 confirmed kills to his name, he is neither a wounded soul nor, as the show signals a little too obviously, a cold-blooded murderer. (In the opening minutes of the pilot, he tussles with a group of poachers who have illegally caught a wolf in a steel trap.)
Apart from still blaming himself for the death of a buddy in Afghanistan, Bob Lee, unlike so many vets, has escaped his tours of duty relatively intact. He’s simply a well-trained soldier who respects the rules of engagement and would prefer to spend time at home telling his daughter bedtime stories about the terrorists he killed in Kandahar, or in the woods hunting deer.
Bob Lee’s domestic idyll is burst when Isaac Johnson (Omar Epps), his former commander and now a Secret Service agent, asks for his help in stopping a presidential assassination plot during a trip to Seattle. Using his expertise as a sniper, Bob Lee determines the would-be assassin’s most likely method, and let’s just say that backfires pretty spectacularly. (You can probably see where this is going, even if Bob Lee can’t.)
Although the pilot sets up a potentially provocative scenario in which a law-abiding gun owner becomes an object of government suspicion, “Shooter” ultimately feels diluted and toothless. It’s a series that deploys any number of fraught subjects in service of a by-the-numbers narrative that reveals very little about human nature or the state of the world.
At a time when sophisticated tales of espionage and political intrigue are virtually everywhere on television, including “The Americans,” “Designated Survivor,” “House of Cards” and “Homeland,” a show as wishy-washy as “Shooter” will find it hard to break out of the pack.
Any tale about the wrongfully accused will live or die by the strength of its protagonist, and it’s hard to feel that invested in Bob Lee — or for that matter, his pretty, devoted wife or precocious mop-topped daughter — none of whom are drawn with enough detail to make us root for them.
Phillippe tries his best with the underdeveloped material, which includes a few groan-worthy attempts at Eastwood-esque tough-guy one-liners (“I’m gonna do what I do best. I’m gonna hunt.”), but with a character like Bob Lee Swagger, who’s not so much stoic as dull, there’s only so much he can do. Don’t let the last name fool you.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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