Academy Award nominee Liam Neeson has had a successful film career spanning decades. However, since Taken was released in 2008, he has cultivated that career further by proceeding down two narrative paths. On one road is the critically acclaimed awards fodder Neeson. Think Silence, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, or Widows; roles that keep him in the minds of the respected “art” crowd. On the second road is the B-movie revenge Neeson, containing genre fare with one similar trope: a damaged man kicks all of the ass, be it against man or beast.
Directed by Robert Lorenz (Trouble with the Curve), The Marksman represents a throwback of sorts to his long-time associate Clint Eastwood (Lorenz executive produced twelve of Eastwood’s films during what was arguably his “prestige” period as well as being an assistant director on nine Eastwood flicks) who, like Neeson, dipped his toes in both the polished and the gritty as an actor. Lorenz approaches The Marksman much like his mentor Eastwood would as a director: with simplicity and calm. Unlike the shaky-cam histrionics of the Taken trilogy or the brutality of some of Neeson’s other B-movie work, The Marksman attempts a more subtle approach, focusing more on the moments of reflection between the action.
This doesn’t make The Marksman automatically good. While it does proceed to look like a copy of an Eastwood slow burner, it doesn’t contain any of the requisite emotion, dimension, or visual flair of Eastwood’s work. It is a pale imitation despite the noble effort. Lorenz doesn’t push any new narrative ground despite the attempt to subvert expectations. The Marksman is a film that you can predict exactly what will happen at each checkpoint on the storytelling map; it is rudimentary A-B-C storytelling. And while that is certainly acceptable for B-movie fare (hell, we came here to see Neeson kick that ass after all), Lorenz’s attempt to scale down the action and ramp up the (empty) reflection simply makes the film boring and slow since there is no edge to it.
Jim (Neeson) is a down on his luck rancher at the Mexico-US border in Arizona. His cattle aren’t getting fed, his ranch is due to be repossessed by the bank within 90 days, and he’s still mourning the untimely death of his wife. Jim spends most of his days defending his cattle from desert creatures and reporting illegal aliens crossing the border. But one day, a young mother named Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her son Miguel (Jacob Perez) come onto Jim’s property fresh from the border desperate for shelter. Across the fence is a ruthless band of cartel goons looking to execute the two for their relationship to an uncle that betrayed them.
A former marine marksman, Jim ends up defending the two from the cartel, taking out one of the members of the gang and sending the others fleeing, but not before Rosa is fatally injured in the shoot-out. Despite orders from his step-daughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), a local Border Patrol bigwig, to leave the child with them, Jim steals Miguel away and takes him on the road cross country towards Chicago where family awaits him. Little does Jim know that the cartel has crossed the border and is in hot pursuit, with cops and local gangs in their pocket.
A movie made for its leading actor can only go as far as that actor takes it. Neeson isn’t exactly slumming it with The Marksman as he has been making this type of film for almost 15 years. But because of that familiarity with the material, Neeson seems to be sleepwalking through the well-worn material. He’s good enough of an actor to pull off the disgruntled, sad look even at 50% effort but it doesn’t exactly light a fire to keep the audience engaged.
His supporting cast isn’t much help. Winnick is hilariously wooden as Jim’s step-daughter and the head of the Cartel, played with hammy menace by Juan Pablo Raba, makes for a pathetic adversary. In the end, it is pretty much the faceless villain and his nameless goons placed into a position for Neeson to inflict pain on. Not that you see too much of that pain. The Marksman feels like it was neutered from an R rating to a PG-13. The violence is haphazardly cut at odd moments in what is otherwise a rudimentary editing job by Luis Carballar.
The Marksman will not offend anyone but I can’t exactly say it will entertain anyone either. With the violence seemingly cut out, you are left with some very basic narrative tropes and lots of sequences of silent reflection that pretend to mean something bigger than what it is. It is the perfect example of a B-movie template in which the pieces are interchangeable and the outcome predestined. Need an hour and a half to kill? The Marksman will certainly do that for you.
The Marksman will be released theatrically on January 15th. VOD release is pending.