The Marksman, Liam Neeson’s latest geriatric action thriller, could just as easily be imagined as a star vehicle for Clint Eastwood. The film is directed by Robert Lorenz, Eastwood’s longtime producer who made his directorial debut on Trouble with the Curve. With Neeson in the role of an aging Vietnam War vet who takes on a dangerous mission to escort a migrant boy cross country, the film wades into heavy message-making territory, but only just long enough for the actor to catch a breath before engaging in the kind of generic violence we’ve come to expect from his post-Taken career.
Neeson sports the ornery cuss of Eastwood in his Gran Torino phase, playing grizzled war vet Jim Hanson. With his ill-fitting cowboy hat and rundown Arizona ranch, soon to be repossessed by the bank after his savings were wiped out by a tragedy, Jim spends his days calling out “IAs” to Border Patrol as they try to cross into the country. A rifle draped over his shoulder, an American flag waving in the background as pretty much everything around him crumbles into dust, Jim is the prime example of someone clinging to what he knows in the midst of a changing world.
Jim’s life of casual alcoholism gets a shake-up when he nearly runs over an immigrant woman and her son Miguel (Jacob Perez), entering the country illegally to escape a drug cartel. The ensuing shootout with the thugs ends in the mother dead, the gang leader’s brother dead, and Jim vowing to escort Miguel to Chicago and his only living relatives.
Yeah, this was totally meant to be an Eastwood joint. You can see it in Jim’s weathered conservative trappings, just dying to be softened by the close proximity to the kind of people he’s been turning in, and probably scapegoating, for years. Even the movie’s gradual pacing, which finds Jim and Miguel taking a most-leisurely road trip, feels like something we would expect from The Man with No Name in his latter stages. Eastwood even gets to make a cameo of sorts, appearing in a scene from the classic Hang ’em High. We get it. But this is a Neeson film, and the spectre of his past action flicks looms large. The film stops occasionally to remind us that Neeson is still pretty damn credible when it comes to killing folks. I mean…it’s titled The Marksman, one of those straight-arrow descriptors all Neeson films have because they don’t aspire to much beyond it. And that’s fine. This is a point A-to-point B movie at its core, with just enough heart to make the PG-13 audience happy. There’s even a little bit of John Wick thrown in here for good measure. Jim has a loyal canine companion…and you never want to mess with a guy’s dog.
Politically, The Marksman tries to cover all of its bases. Jim is conservative enough to rat out undocumented immigrants, but sensitive enough to put his life on the line to rescue one. He’ll enthusiastically teach that same boy how to use a gun, but also spare him the violence it can bring. For the most part, the issue of illegal immigration is simply there in the background never meant to be addressed directly, like Jim’s drinking problems and relationship to his stepdaughter (Katheryn Winnick), who happens to be a Border Patrol agent. You’d be hard-pressed to tell this Neeson character from the ones in Non-Stop or Honest Thief.
The thing is, we don’t expect a different Liam Neeson, do we? We sorta want to hear that Irish accent of his peek through every now and then, even when it shouldn’t. And we just want him to play that father-figure we can rely on to save our asses from a violent gang, then chastise us for getting in the situation to begin with. In those terms, The Marksman doesn’t hit a bullseye but at least gets on the scoreboard, and gives Neeson one of the better roles he’s had from this particular genre in a while.