TELEVISION REVIEW : 'Shooter' Takes Aim for Series

The title character in "Shooter" complains that most newspapers aren't very interested in the more downbeat pictures he takes in his job as a combat photographer in Vietnam.

Likewise, the producers/writers of this rousing tribute to the Vietnam "shooters" don't let the less-appealing aspects of their hero's life put much of a damper on his morale, or on their movie.

"Shooter" makes Matt (Jeffrey Nordling) a role model for boy adventurers everywhere. He's devilishly handsome and clever. He dodges bullets and commitments to women with equal facility. Yet he also has a heart of gold: He devises an elaborate scam involving payments to a fake free-lance photographer, but then turns over his ill-gotten gains to a refugee center run by a nun.

When his pal and colleague (wry Alan Ruck) complains that he narrowly escaped death on a recent shoot, Matt replies, "We're supposed to almost get killed--that's our job." What a perfect job for the lead of a TV series . . . as long as the "almost" remains intact.

You'd think that "Shooter" would appeal to the TV schedulers more than such items as "Tour of Duty" or "China Beach." Unlike the protagonists of those series, Matt has an expense account and the ability to go back to Saigon or to Bangkok whenever he can catch the nearest helicopter. He can talk back to the bureaucrats by challenging them at press conferences. A "Shooter" series wouldn't be confined to those depressing front lines as much as series that focus on the soldiers or nurses.

Nevertheless, "Shooter" hasn't yet made the NBC schedule.

Still, the pilot (Sunday at 9 p.m.) is a notable effort by executive producers/writers David Hume Kennerly and Stephen Kline. They drew on Kennerly's own experiences as a Vietnam photographer, which he chronicled in the book of the same name.

The characters who inhabit the Saigon bureau are adroitly sketched. "Shooter" also unerringly captures the delicacy of the split-second decisions the photographers faced in the field.

In one incident, Matt is photographing an apparent Viet Cong corpse which suddenly comes to life. He's briefly tempted by the urge to simply shoot his picture without warning the American soldier who stands nearby. After all, as a Vietnamese reporter notes, covering the war is like covering sports for the photographers: "You're looking for the moment of peak action--it's a game."

When Matt discovers the identity of a motorcycling bomber who has been terrorizing Saigon, he doesn't tell anyone for the longest time. In this case, though, his decision is based more on compassion for the miscreant than on a desire to get the best shots of the bomber in action.

The film makers don't question Matt's judgment in this situation, nor does anyone point out that the one character whose death seems to affect Matt the most is this street kid turned terrorist.

But then, deaths don't get Matt down for long. The black humor of the war (for example, a couple of middle-aged tourists who are there for the scenery) is expressed more than the pain.

The most serious flaw in the writing of "Shooter" is its portrait of Matt's truest love, a young embassyworker (Helen Hunt). Matt supposedly left this woman at the altar in a previous life. It seems odd that they meet again in Saigon. It's even odder that her grudge against him should dissolve so effortlessly.

Director Gary Nelson relies a bit too much on the cliche of period music heard over shots of helicopters. But like its hero, the movie generally retains a breezy charm that's impervious to the horror that might otherwise overwhelm it.

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