Let it be known that no pandemic is going to keep Liam Neeson down, especially when there is yet another batch of prefabricated villainy to deal with. This time it’s a drug cartel set along America’s southern border. This time there’s a young boy to save. This time Neeson has yet another helpful set of ‘skills’. But this time he’s far from the usual gravelly-voiced one-man-army we’re accustomed to seeing. Well, he still has the signature gravelly voice, but he’s not the impervious imposing force from so many of his other action thrillers.
With “The Marksman” Neeson teams with writer-director Robert Lorenz who is best known for producing several Clint Eastwood films including the Oscar-nominated trio of “Mystic River”, “Letters From Iwo Jima”, and “American Sniper”. It’s probably safe to say “The Marksman” won’t be joining those three esteemed films and that’s okay. These sturdy Neeson thrillers are built with a particular fan-base in mind which is both a strength and a weakness. If you’ve watched a number of them you can’t help but notice some similarities. But there’s often just enough nuance to set them apart. And Neeson brings a certain gravitas to these rather familiar exercises that make them somewhat of a guilty pleasure.
In many ways “The Marksman” feels like a movie Clint Eastwood could have made a few years ago (there’s even a funny little reference to the 90-year-old legend that I’ll let you discover). Neeson plays James Hanson, a decorated Vietnam veteran struggling to hang onto his dusty old ranch that sits on the Arizona/Mexico border. James is a lonely man still mourning the death of wife to cancer. Now he spends his days watching over a few scrawny heads of cattle and radioing local border patrol whenever he spots immigrants illegally crossing the border.
Fresh off an encounter with a bank executive who gives him 90 days to pay his loan and save his ranch, James runs into a migrant mother named Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) sneaking through the border fence with her son Miguel (Jacob Perez) and a bag full of money. James’ first inclination is to call border patrol, not out of some cold disdain or political ideology. He’s not that type of character. Instead he’s a broken shell of a man unplugged from society; lost without his wife and self-sentenced to a life of loneliness. So when the frantic mother pleads for his help his first response is more mechanical than emotional.
But things quickly escalate when soldiers from a Mexican drug cartel led by the overtly menacing Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) pull up on the other side of the fence. They demand James hand over Rosa and Miguel, he promptly refuses, and gunfire is exchanged. When it’s over Mauricio’s brother is dead on one side of the fence and Rosa is mortally wounded on the other side. In her dying breath she asks James to take her son to a relative in Chicago and offers him all of the money in the bag as payment. Before long James is reluctantly driving the young orphaned Miguel from Arizona to the Windy City.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from action movies, it’s that you don’t kill the brother of the main bad guy. It always makes them meaner, madder, and more dogged in their pursuit. That apparent thirst for vengeance is all we get with Mauricio. He’s basically a one-note villain who’s stuck in one gear for the majority of the film. Lorenz tries to open him up a little bit at the end, but it’s not enough to give the meanie any real weight.
The relationship between James and young Miguel is handled better but still has rough spots of its own. There’s almost a natural attraction to the whole ‘sweet young boy bonds with a surly grizzled misanthrope’ storyline. It’s been done countless times and still we find ourselves drawn to it’s inherent charms. It works here in large part because Neeson makes James sympathetic enough that we root for him to rediscover the warmth and inner joy of human attachment. And there’s the unshakable connection as both are grieving souls who find themselves all alone after losing the persons closest to them.
But it’s how their relationship plays out that’s lacking. For example we’re teased with a compelling conflict after Miguel blames James for the death of his mother. It’s a weighty, emotionally-driven charge and there is a lot the movie could have done with it. Instead that animosity just up and vanishes after a few miles and a couple of hamburgers, never to be discussed or touched on again. Their relationship ends up going a much more routine route which actually sums up “The Marksman” as a whole. There’s enough to keep you involved but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. It leaves you wanting to see it through even though you know how things are going to turn out. In other words, it’s pretty standard, middle-of-the-road fare. “The Marksman” is now showing in theaters.
VERDICT- 2.5 STARS