Note: The writer of this review watched The Marksman on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
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Liam Neeson, the growling Irish saint of ex-cops and deadbeat dads, is not an obvious choice for the role of an ornery, conservative Southwestern rancher. Yet there he is as one Jim Hanson in Robert Lorenz’s The Marksman, wearing a cowboy hat and toting a scoped rifle as he radios Border Patrol about some “IAs” near his property. As we will soon learn, the land Jim is defending won’t be his for much longer. Standing out in front of the ranch at dusk, an American flag draped baldly over his shoulder, he is served with a notice of foreclosure by some weenie from the bank. Coyotes and vultures both literal and figurative have made their appearances. The symbolism of being Mr. Economic Anxiety is a heavy burden to bear.
Some days later, Jim spies a woman and her son sneaking through the border fence, pursued by heavies. Out comes the 2nd Amendment and the steely glare. Neeson’s interpretation of an American accent has rarely sounded less convincing: “Sorry, Pancho, these illegals are mine.” The standoff becomes a shootout, the woman ends up dead, and after some extended soul-searching, Jim finds himself on the run with the boy, Miguel (Jacob Perez), partly out of a sense of guilt over his role in his mother’s death and partly because there’s a backpack full of stolen cartel money involved. By this point, things have started to fall into place. The kid, the sneer, the politics, the indifferent pacing, the nondescript heartland, the gripes: This is supposed to be Clint Eastwood’s property.
It’s possible that The Marksman was conceived for the erstwhile Man With No Name. Lorenz, who previously helmed 2012’s Trouble With The Curve, has been Eastwood’s producer since Mystic River, was his assistant director before that, and has overall logged more than a quarter century in the United States Of Clint. Perhaps the material was too close to Eastwood’s recent and upcoming road trips (The Mule and the currently-in-post Cry Macho), or perhaps it simply called for a younger tall, squinty, aging star. Lorenz is obviously not shy about the inevitable comparisons. He even gives Eastwood a cameo of sorts via a clip from Hang ’Em High that plays on a motel room TV. (It’s the scene with the eggs.)
This makes a critic’s job a little too easy. If one were to diagnose a central problem with The Marksman, it’s that it isn’t actually a Clint Eastwood movie; it lacks the breathing room, the first-take nonchalance that always makes an attractive opposite to the Eastwoodian sense of purpose. Despite some concessions to the Neeson screen persona (Jim is a widower and a disillusioned habitué of the local watering hole), the plot remains uninhabited. Jim is trying to deliver Miguel to the boy’s relatives in Chicago while being pursued by a cartel killer (Juan Pablo Raba) and by his own stepdaughter (Katheryn Winnick), who is a Border Patrol agent. Hearts are softened; man and boy bond; the mile markers of a quasi-redemption arc are crossed with the help of an actual roadmap.
The result is somewhere between homage and anonymity, sprinkled with a few stiff, perfunctory fight scenes. Weathering all of this, Neeson remains the image of dogged, watchable commitment. Even he seems to know that he’s the wrong man for the job, imparting his dusty archetype with the sort of dutiful obligation that The Marksman otherwise fails to express. One can imagine the stern, self-flagellating, self-loathing, post-Taken-cycle Neeson waiting to burst out so he can throttle his character’s drinking, his regrets, his apparent loss of faith. But instead he’s at the wheel of a pick-up with a dog by his side, grumbling about cell phones and the government.