Clint Eastwood’s shadow looms large over “The Marksman,” even if you don’t know that this quick and greasy Liam Neeson thriller is directed by “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby” producer Robert Lorenz (“Trouble with the Curve”), or that it shares many of the same craftspeople who worked on those movies. The story of a grizzled old widower who reluctantly finds himself driving an orphaned Mexican boy from Arizona to Illinois with a bag full of drug money on the floor of his truck and a sociopathic cartel assassin in its rear-view mirror, “The Marksman” might be two three-ways short of “The Mule,” but almost everything about it — from its “get off my lawn” misanthropy to its general take on the uselessness of government in American life — feels geared for a late-career Eastwood vehicle.
By the time Eastwood himself actually shows up for a minute in the second act, the star grinning at us from inside a motel TV that’s airing a fuzzy broadcast of the 1968 Western “Hang ‘Em High,” the nod seems almost as inevitable and indebted as one of those Stan Lee cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But if superhero movies have unsurprisingly managed to outlive Stan Lee, a film as functional and flavorless as “The Marksman” suggests that Eastwoodism will die along with the man who inspired it.
If Lorenz’s homage should feel so anonymous, perhaps that’s because crusty and cash-strapped Arizona rancher Jim Hanson — hard as he might try to be an ersatz Clint Eastwood — is also forced to be Liam Neeson, John Wick, and the creator of “The Muppets” at the same time. By now such an established action star that the post-“Taken” portion of his career has its own sub-sections nested inside of it (his 2019 self-cancellation marking the end of one and the start of another), Neeson has developed a clear screen persona of his own, and it doesn’t necessarily square with the “Old Man with No Name” energy of his latest character.
For one thing, he reads as sadder than the Eastwood archetype; not just wistful or lonely, but hollow. Jim is an apolitical character who’s too depressed to care about those around him, regardless of where they’re from or the color of their skin; when he and his dog Jackson come across an 11-year-old migrant named Miguel (Jacob Perez) and his mother Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) as they scupper through a hole in the border fence, Jim’s reaction is to give them some water and call border patrol — it’s the simple reflex of a former Marine who doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to register the horror on these faces.
There’s no MAGA-related malice in the decision, and the movie isn’t much interested in “Green Booking” together a story about a white guy who only comes to see people of color as human once he’s forced to spend time with one of them (even if that’s basically what happens). “The Marksman” doesn’t unpack its protagonist enough to know his biases or chart his growth; he’s just empty when it starts, and fills up a bit as it goes along.
Jim only begins to react once some hard-looking dudes roll up to the Mexican side of the divide, start shooting through the fence, and fatally wound the boy’s mom. Even after Rosa uses her dying breath to ask Jim to deliver her son to some family in Chicago — and the marksman(!) picks off one of the baddies with his rifle — he can’t bring himself to do anything more than deliver Miguel to the authorities. That Jim eventually reconsiders, breaks the kid out, and drives him on a dangerous road trip to the Midwest feels both easily explainable and strangely unmotivated in equal measure.
Is it because Jim knows that some of the border guards are being paid off by the cartels, and that Miguel’s survival depends on finding a safe home in the States? Is it because the bank is going to auction off his ranch in 90 days, he’s never going to be able to pay off his late wife’s medical bills in time, and his Border Patrol director stepdaughter (Katheryn Winnick) is too underwritten to puncture the bubble of loneliness that’s built up around him? Is it just that he’s bored? The right answer is never more than a messy hodgepodge of those reasons, as “The Marksman” aims at a moving target that also has to accommodate some geriatric action sequences — there’s a lot of hiding, and several beats where Jim and Miguel escape a location mere seconds before the villains arrive — and a Terminator-style bad guy played by “Narcos” actor Juan Pablo Raba. His Mauricio is a walking stereotype who doesn’t realize who he’s dealing with, and his Anton Chigurh swagger (complete with the murder of an innocent gas station attendant) only goes so far to justify the screen time he chews up along the way. And when Mauricio takes aim at the dog, well… let’s just say I’m thinking Jim Hanson is back.
In between the flying bullets and screeching tires, Lorenz strains to establish an unlikely bond between Jim and Miguel, but there isn’t a lot of meat on that particular bone. Perez is a winsome presence, and it’s always fun to watch a brutal old git make friends with a hapless kid, but the surrogate dad thing doesn’t have the time it needs to take hold. Miguel initially blames Jim for his mother’s death, and then — a steak and a shootout later — simply doesn’t anymore. Easy as it is to appreciate how the kid might have come around to the truth of his circumstances, “The Marksman” elides so much of the nuance that might have elevated this story above basic genre shlock.
Character is implied, but seldom investigated. Jim steals enough swigs of booze to raise an eyebrow, and Miguel groans that he “didn’t even want to be in your stupid country,” but neither of their wounds and frustrations are explored further than the action requires them to be. While an ambient sense of “the government needs to get its shit together and figure that mess out” is subsumed into the narrative (especially when Jim barks that “the government needs to get together and figure that mess out!”), “The Marksman” is too enamored with its low-rent January aesthetics to make any detours towards depth.
Much like his mentor, Lorenz shoots straight from the hip. The action is clean, the beats are broad, the color palette is muted. There’s so little muss or fuss to this movie that any stray moments — such as a quick scene in which Mauricio makes eyes at a blonde American woman as if he’s never been north of the border before — only call attention to its narrow focus and Redbox ambitions. Neeson is a fine stand-in for the haggard soul of a country where people feel the need to take the law into their own hands, but his latest cinematic vendetta is so eager to get where it’s going that it loses any real sense of itself along the way. By the time “The Marksman” fades out on its very Eastwoodian finale, Clint’s touch doesn’t feel like an unsubtle inspiration so much as it does a severe kind of absence.
Open Road will release “The Marksman” in theaters on Friday, January 15.
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