Movie Review – Marksman, The (2021)

Principal Cast : Liam Neeson, Jacob Perez, Jian Pablo Raba, Katheryn Winnick, Teresa Ruiz, Dylan Kenan, Luke Rains, Sean Rosales, Alfredo Quiros.
Synopsis: A rancher on the Arizona border becomes the unlikely defender of a young Mexican boy desperately fleeing the cartel assassins who’ve pursued him into the U.S.

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You know a film isn’t going to be much chop when a studio decides to release it in January. Practically the graveyard of release months, to be honest. Finding Liam Neeson’s The Marksman, reputedly his final turn as a grizzled action star, landing in multiplexes early in the year (in a pandemic, no less) indicated that the film ought to relatively free of quality or entertainment value; on the one hand, that’s true, but on the other, it’s also true. The Marksman is pretty rubbish, despite even the best Neeson impression Neeson has ever done, a forgettable action affair that rarely raises the pulse and more often than not seems content to just put the viewer to sleep.

Neeson plays Jim Hanson, a struggling Arizona rancher struggling to make ends meet following the recent passing of his wife. He spends his time between his cattle and the illegal border crossings on his doorstep with Mexico. One day, he encounters a mother (Teresa Ruiz) and her young son Miguel (Jacob Perez) attempting to cross the border fence in order to escape a sadistic cartel boss, Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba). After a shootout sees Miguel’s mother shot, Hanson promises the dying woman he’ll do what he can to get her son to their extended family living in Chicago. Hanson’s daughter, border patrol agent Sarah (Katheryn Winnick) exhorts her father not to, but Jim packs his bags and begins a cross-country trek to deliver the boy safely, with the cartel hoodlums hot on their heels.

Unfortunately, The Marksman promises a lot and delivers very little. For a film with such an evocative title, there’s very little marksman-ing involved, even at the very end where the obligatory shootout finale of the story occurs. Liam Neeson’s character is has far more depth and nuance than the generic narrative can support, reducing the great actor to a series of sighs, grimaces and half-assed grumbling, while Juan Pablo Raba’s cheesy, grill-toothed villain is an antithetical to the realism and believability the film otherwise asserts. It’s a film purporting to be both a heartfelt drama about illegal aliens and sanctuary as well as a chase-thriller with action and stunts. The Marksman achieves neither of those things, sadly, with producer-turned-director Robert Lorenz (Mystic River, Gran Torino, J Edgar), a long-time pal of Clint Eastwood, mismanaging the demands of both the complexity of the story’s character beats as well as the lethargic action. You can definitely see The Marksman being a long-dormant Clint Eastwood vehicle once upon a time, repurposed with cinema’s modern equivalent in Liam Neeson, although where Neeson lacks the gristly power-stare he makes up for in a sense of warmth.

Doing a serviceable take on the father-son trope, Neeson’s Jim Hanson and Jacob Perez’ Miguel amiable chemistry isn’t as strong as it needs to be to motivate the rancher’s decision to up-stumps and become a child’s chaperone. The film offers no real glimpse into this sense of duty other than some meandering piffle about the man’s dead wife and his financial struggles. Sure, he made a promise to a dying woman, but his stakes in the boy’s life aren’t particularly developed enough to warrant such a schism in his life. He has no qualms about dobbing in other illegal crossings, so why is this any different? The film doesn’t tackle this, or if it does it’s so blas√© and indifferent it matters not. Neeson seems to be sleepwalking through this, while Perez isn’t as natural an actor as the role demands – the boy is quite wooden and I had trouble trying to find any reason for myself to care, let alone Neeson’s Jim. As alluded to, Juan Raba’s cheesy villain comes across as sadistic without the appropriate sense of menace surrounding such sadism. He’s cruel without any sense of scale or retributive arc, and the actor isn’t strong enough a performer to make the role work with any subtlety. The various supporting characters, including Neeson’s co-star in The Ice Road, another 2021 film of his, Amber Midthunder, who cameos as a service station attendant, seem distant to the central plot, and one of the film’s most baffling elements – that a man and a child can make it across the country without a single bit of trouble and pursued by a murderous trio of Mexican cartel gangbangers who at no point spark off any kind of law enforcement sirens – is startlingly asinine.

In terms of action, the film’s punctuative shootouts and periodic violence barely raise the pulse, from the deadly gunfight that sets the plot in motion to the climactic barnyard scuffle in which Neeson and Raba come to a head….in a cowshed. There’s a distinct whiff of budgetary restrictions here, the locations all feel small-town and the scope of the film betrays the wide open landscapes of the Arizonan countryside. For a film I kinda expected to also have a lot more sniper or shooting work in it, The Marksman is pretty tame with its PG-rated off-screen murder count. Call it The Marksman and I expect to see some headshots or something; nope, the film’s rating restricts what it can show us and the rest of the film’s narrative and character development can’t support such bland, sanitised showmanship with any sort of alternative interest.

The Marksman misses its target completely. That’s as damning an indictment as I can muster for this passive, pointless piece of action drivel that deserved to drift into January obscurity. It has its moments – most Liam Neeson films do – but the race is almost lost before it begins. If you can’t show people being blown apart in a film with such an aggressively violent title, then maybe just don’t make the film in the first place. If this is Neeson’s bow-out of action films then maybe he quit at just the right time.