It would be very easy to write The Marksman off as an empty action thriller playing around with evil émigré tropes like a child with a hand grenade, because that’s mostly what it is. A low-key chase film built on the personal salvation of a child in trouble, it plays with stereotypes in a way that’s less ‘messing around with archetypes’ and more ‘lazily indulging in cliché as a shorthand for actual character work.’
The character drama it does have is safely in the hands of Liam Neeson, who can do more with a sad look than a lot of actors can do with a full monologue even if it is frequently in the service of undercooked narratives.
Jim Hanson’s (Neeson) sad looks are being prodded by everything from the recent death of his wife to the upcoming loss of his ranch (due to the cost of the recent death of his wife) just as he enters his retirement years. With said ranch also being on the Texas border, he is daily exposed to the reality of immigration, legal and otherwise.
Hanson is rural American self-identity made flesh, from economic and cultural concerns to internal views of genteel if misunderstood decency. That view is forced to become less genteel very quickly when he accidentally stumbles across a mother and her son (Jacob Perez) being pursued by ruthless gang members across the border.
Soon bullets are flying and Hanson is left with the choice of turning the boy over to the police or fulfilling his promise to bring the boy to his family in Chicago, even if it means driving through a hail of bullets to do so.
The Marksman director/co-writer Robert Lorenz has been a long-time collaborator of Clint Eastwood and it’s easy to see Eastwood in this role; a former marine who in his own words “didn’t cause the trouble but made a choice and has to live with it.” A salt-of-the-earth type, confounded by the machinations of a corrupt world but able to see through it to the elements that what really matters.
But it’s not Eastwood. It’s latter-day Liam Neeson (who is a fairly good replacement for latter-day Eastwood), who continues to do the good work of Sean Connery by clearly being from Ireland no matter what character he’s playing. Small town southern sherrif? CIA wetworks expert? Ex-Marine Texas farmer? All apparently from County Antrim.
Most of the time that doesn’t matter Neeson any more than it mattered when Connery showed up as a Chicago beat cop or a Marine Colonel in San Francisco. But in a film that, whether it realizes it or not, is placing so much of its identity on the American view of immigrants, putting that viewpoint onto someone who is also clearly an immigrant as well muddies the waters.
Was he treated as an outsider, a burden on the government, when he arrived? Did he join the military as part of his attempt at assimilation? Was the experiment so successful he’s forgotten the estrangement he felt when he first arrived? Is helping Mauricio a by-product of the re-awakening of his old sense of self? It’s all a little weird and certainly more than was ever considered by Lorenz or the other filmmakers.
Probably nothing about this was considered at all beyond a general bit of action fantasy, which is clear from the hastily sketched characters particularly his antagonist Maurico (Juan Pablo Raba). Maurico is suggested to be a man not too different from Jim, a soldier who longs for simplicity and directness in a complex world and in fighting each other they are trying to kill an old piece of themselves.
But Maurico is also classic sneering, black-clothed villain spending more money to chase down Miguel than his mother could possibly owe or have stolen (it’s never made clear which) and also making the classic bad guy mistake of bringing his unnamed brother to a gun fight.
[It’s easy to imagine being only a few films away from one such villain whose army is made up entirely of his multiple brothers who keeps getting angrier and angrier as they are variously wiped out by the hero].
The Marksman is competent but uninspired with no desire to do more than play to the vanity of a particular audience while being utterly confused how to do that. A soulful performance from the usually excellent Neeson uplifts the material far more than it really deserves, but it’s never enough to get away from the easy clichés and lazy storytelling it indulges in.
The Marksman Review Score: 6/10
Directed by Robert Lorenz, The Marksman stars Liam Neeson, Katheryn Winnick, Teresa Ruiz, and Juan Pablo Raba. The movie will open in theaters on February 15, 2021.