Few actors have had as many of their films come out during the last year or so as Liam Neeson. I’m guessing if there hadn’t been a pandemic, films like his latest, The Marksman, would have been put out proudly on VOD, with probably a very limited theatrical run, and then vanished into the ether. But distributors these days are digging into the nether-regions of their closets and pulling out whatever they can find (I’m still seeing an awful lot of films dated 2019 these days) and dumping them into whatever theaters, drive-ins or streaming services are available. That’s not a comment on the quality of The Marksman—a completely serviceable crime drama/road movie—but it’s a trend that I’m expecting will continue for many months to come, and in fact may offer some potentially lost films a home they might never have found otherwise.
In The Marksman, Neeson plays Jim Hanson, a grizzled Arizona rancher, ex-Marine sharpshooter, recent widower and only a mild bigot, who passes the time when he isn’t watching his ranch collapse in financial ruin by patrolling the U.S.-Mexican border and calling in the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol when he spots migrants crossing over illegally. Director Robert Lorenz (Trouble with the Curve) is smart not to have Hanson spout any rhetoric about immigration or something equally problematic, but we understand his priorities pretty clearly. One day, he spots a woman (Teressa Ruiz) and her 11-year-old son Miguel (Jacob Perez) coming through the fence, being chased by cartel members. The woman is killed, but she begs Hanson to take her son to relatives in Chicago, something neither he nor the boy are thrilled about.
At first, he turns the boy over to his Border Patrol agent step-daughter (Katheryn Winnick), but when he spots the cartel members waiting for the boy to be deported, he sneaks back into the office and gets him out, determined to get the kid to Chicago. The rest of the film is part road movie/part pursuit story, with both the cartel (led the particularly nasty Mauricio, played by Juan Pablo Raba) and the government after Hanson, who is both weirdly resourceful (thanks to his military background, presumably) and out of touch (he doesn’t own a phone, which leads to a funny sequence in a gas station where he searches for a road atlas). Not surprisingly, the mismatched pair become pretty dependent on each other, with both caught in the throes of grief—Miguel for his mother and Hanson for his late wife. Although they don’t expressly talk about their losses, their shared mourning is the basis for their eventual connection.
The Marksman isn’t a particularly good or bad film. There are a couple of nice set pieces, but there are just as many missed opportunities, including what seemed to be a nice relationship between Hanson and Sarah that never really plays out. She pulls him out of a bar after he finds out he’s about to lose his ranch, but after that, their relationship seems more mission-driven than personal, even though she’s clearly grateful that her mother found love late in life with this man. Also, the portraits of these cartel members are alarmingly broad and clíché (maybe even disturbingly stereotypical). And there are few things that bug me more in movies than watching an adult teach a child how to shoot (sure, it’s for his protection, but it also means that kid is going to shoot somebody later in the movie).
Even as he approaches 70, Neeson is always going to be highly watchable as an action star, and here he’s able to tap into his dramatic training as well, so The Marksman is slightly better than some of what he’s done lately (I’m looking at you October 2020’s Honest Thief), but we know he’s capable of doing work far more challenging than this. Give it a few months, and I’m sure we’ll see what he has for us next.
The film will be in theaters on January 15 (although not in Chicago; it may still be on the marquee when theaters presumably open back up soon).
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