There is no denying Liam Neeson is the obvious choice for run-of-the-mill action flicks featuring men of a certain age. However, that doesn’t always mean he’s the best badass for the job. A far cry from the Irish star’s thrilling yet ludicrous The Commuter, The Marksman is another January dump that aims for Neeson’s loyal fan base but misses the figurative mark.
As an ex-marine turned cattle rancher, Neeson feels out of place in a role better suited to the weathered pastoral grit of Clint Eastwood. Even more shocking is that director Robert Lorenz, a producer on many of Eastwood’s projects, couldn’t negotiate the actor-director’s inclusion. Instead, we’re left with Neeson fighting harder to prevent his native accent from escaping than he does the cartel lords hunting him down.
The Marksman is hopefully the last “white savior” narrative masking as a social justice thriller. There’s nothing that screams “unity” more than witnessing a working-class conservative’s home being foreclosed on by big banks. Oh, and Jim Hanson (Neeson) is also saddled with a lazy alcoholic trope that has no bearing on his financial suffering or character growth. Again, Hollywood wants us to feel sorry for a man who never bothered caring about immigration policy until his life is threatened by it. Though the story does shed light on Mexican-Arizonan border crime — especially with cartel members having easier access into the United States than those fleeing their wrath — Neeson’s latest is more about a man reconfiguring his moral compass than toppling racist institutions.
On top of trying to save his farm, Hanson also keeps tabs on the surrounding area for his USBP officer stepdaughter, Sarah (Katheryn Winnick). Any border-crossing activity he discovers will be radioed in. Right after receiving news that he’s got a set amount of days to pay his mortgage before his property is seized, Hanson crosses paths with a young Mexican mother and her son. Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her boy Miguel (Jacob Perez) are heading to Chicago to stay with relatives, the only people they can trust to shelter them from the vengeance of the cartel, who just killed Rosa’s brother Carlos (Alfredo Quiroz). The mafia sends a hitman squad to murder the pair as payback for Carlos double-crossing the organization. Furthermore, they are after a large sum of drug transfer money, kept hidden in Rosa’s duffel bag.
Ignoring Rosa’s pleas to let them pass, Hanson wastes precious minutes radioing the USBP. Gunfire rains on the trio, and from it comes tragic loss. Though conflicted at first, Hanson vows to safeguard Miguel on the journey to Chicago. Yes, even if that means illegally springing Miguel from temporary USBP custody. The unlikely duo can’t seem to shake off the manhunt lead by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba), a cartel lieutenant whose brother was killed during the shootout with Hanson.
Revenge fuels Mauricio more than money, though it doesn’t stop screenwriters Lorenz, Chris Charles, and Danny Kravitz from leaning into racist stereotypes. They create an arbitrary scene where Mauricio crosses paths with an American couple to have the girlfriend salivate over him after locking eyes once. The hitman is invigorated by the attention, his maniacal ego boosted. The encounter appears to infer that the Mexican cartel is even more dangerous than we thought because they can seduce American women. Though not as overt, this is on the same slippery slope as Donald Trump, insinuating all Mexicans who cross the border are rapists and murderers. There is absolutely no reason the studio should have allowed Mexican characters — even if they play the villain — to be codified as sexually threatening.
Neeson and Perez have an easy chemistry, and it’s refreshing to see an immigrant child show off their bilingual skills to a disbelieving adult. Oftentimes, the kid in peril remains completely silent, eyes wide as saucers, too afraid to reveal anything. Perez’s Miguel carries sobering confidence, traumatized by his circumstance, yet knowing it’s going to take a lot more than stepping foot in America to guarantee safety.
The final showdown provides an exhale of relief — this is the frenetic, pulse-pounding action we’ve been waiting for! Naturally, Neeson headlining a beat ’em up thriller is going to generate baseline expectation. When the bare minimum isn’t fulfilled until the closing act, it’s hard to convince action cinema lovers that their patience was earned. Moreover, The Marksman goes further than most Neeson romps in asking audiences to suspend disbelief. Without any way to really track Jim and Miguel, it makes no sense how the cartel knows precisely where to find them. Sure, the cartel might have a wide reach, but even camera system hackers have their zone limits. The ease by which they pinpoint their prey within the expansive American Midwest is CIA-level omnipotent.
Mainly, The Marksman fails to muster anything close to the level of excitement we’re accustomed to from the genre’s most consistent retribution seeker. This mission might be noble, but it’s awfully dull. It all amounts to a road trip with very little chase and no call to greater action: making Miguel’s story one of universal injustice rather than a plot device to clear consciences.
The Marksman is distributed by Open Road Films and is Currently Playing in Select Theaters