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.
Stars: Liam Neeson, Jacob Perez, Katheryn Winnick, Teresa Ruiz, Juan Pablo Raba, Dylan Kenin, Luce Rains, Chase Mullins, Christopher Mele, Grayson Berry, David DeLao, Esodie Geiger, Gonzalo Robles
Director: Robert Lorenz
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: It just so happened that the weekend before I caught The Marksman I watched 1994’s Nell which found one-time-all-time serious actor turned action star Liam Neeson in a much different mode. Twenty-six years younger and starring alongside his soon to be wife (the late Natasha Richardson), Neeson is a hot-headed and passionate doctor making a compelling argument for protecting the innocence of a vulnerable woman. The film’s success at the box office (along with his Oscar nomination the previous year for Schindler’s List) helped tip the scales in favor of Neeson’s A-List status and he became a bankable star for the next decade. Then he made a potboiler of a film called Taken in 2008 and his career took another swift swerve.
Ever since the success of Taken and it’s subsequent sequels, Neeson has made a crackerjack living off of playing the rough-edged everyman put into extraordinary situations and rising to the challenge of beating back all that stand in his way. While maintaining a steady career in other genres to keep his craft honed, it’s these muscle-y popcorn chomping action flicks that certainly pay the bills and, to his credit, a number of them have been of above average quality and well-tailored to Neeson’s strengths. As time has gone by they’ve presented less and less of a stretch for the actors so while we aren’t seeing him taking on wolves in The Grey or sussing out a killer onboard a plane in Non-Stop, every now and then we see him riding a train for a Agatha Christie-esque mystery/adrenaline mash-up like the somewhat silly The Commuter.
You’d understand then why The Marksman didn’t immediately jump off the page for me when scrolling through the list of releases, right? I mean, another Neeson January release with a familiar formula wasn’t exactly a clarion call for immediate viewing. Yet something about this one felt different and more serious in tone than the recent endeavors so rather than let it be a film I fired up after it had been out for a while I pursued it a bit and am I ever glad I did. While it’s not going to be anywhere near the top level of Neeson’s best known for works, The Marksman is arguably one of his more respectable efforts in quite some time. Stripping away a lot of the false bravado and grime that has started to creep into his movies as of late, there’s a semi-Western vibe to the film that gives it that same feeling of it being Neeson against the world. Even better, it features the return of the actor that convinced us of his passion for protection of true innocence.
With his Arizona ranch that stretches along the border of Mexico on the verge of foreclosure after falling behind in his mortgage, recent widower Jim Hanson (Neeson) is facing the reality of leaving behind the home he made with his late wife. A former U.S. Marine sharpshooter that spent two tours in Vietnam, Hanson spends his days keeping coyotes of the animal and human variety off his land and helping any undocumented immigrants crossing the border illegally from being left behind to die in the deadly heat…by turning them over to border patrol. He’s not unkind in the process, just matter of fact in his transactional nature, especially considering his stepdaughter Sarah (a wan Kathryn Winnick, Wander) has connections to the department. There’s nothing much to do around town but drive around and drink and he’s gotten good at both, finding too much comfort in the latter.
Hanson is out driving alongside the border wall with his dog when he spots Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her son Miguel (Jacob Perez) who have just snuck through. What he doesn’t know is that Rosa is fleeing a dangerous cartel that has already murdered her brother and is now tracking her and her son…and they are hot on her heels. This chance encounter spirals into a scene no one was expecting and leads Hanson to make an out of character choice to later remove Miguel from Border Patrol custody and deliver him to family in Chicago. This cross-country trip is no joyride as the older man and child are tirelessly pursued by a lethal quartet of killers who are as well connected in the U.S. as they are in Mexico. With no one to trust and their lives definitively on the line, Hanson and Miguel must learn to trust one another if they have any chance to survive.
For his second feature film directing gig, Robert Lorenz follows in the well-worn footsteps of his long-time friend and mentor, Clint Eastwood. On a number of Eastwood films over the past two decades, Lorenz has served as producer (Jersey Boys, American Sniper) and/or second-unit director (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River) and he’s clearly learned a thing or two about pacing from his squinty pal and more’s the better for it. A flashier director might have turned The Marksman into a film that would have felt a little edgier but lost some of the laid-back soul it finds throughout. It’s PG-13 rating becomes a benefit because with all the killing (and frankly there’s a lot of senseless murders in this one), it was nice to be spared a lot of the aftermath. I wouldn’t half doubt the script was offered to Eastwood or written with him in mind – it’s extremely reminiscent of something that would appeal to him. (In a nice nod, Miguel watches Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High on a hotel room during one brief respite on their journey.)
If I say that Neeson feels relaxed in the role I don’t want you to take that as a bad thing or that he’s coasting. To me, it comes across like Neeson read this script and just instantly understood this character and where they are at this present point in life (or in their grieving process?) and how taking this boy and his challenges on would change him. None of the action sequences seem unrealistic for his age (68) and when he springs into action it comes with a twinge of excitement not just for the audience, but for his character as well, like he’s plugging into a socket that’s long been decommissioned. Perez is cast well against him too, avoiding a number of the pitfalls a child actor can plunge into when faced with these sort of ‘child in distress’ roles. He’s afforded some true sincerity in his lines and gets in several that put present situations into a much more global perspective. I liked the smaller bit parts Lorenz cast too, like the roadside attendant and gun store owner that Hanson meets along the way. For once, the villain is actually fairly terrifying so anytime Juan Pablo Raba (The 33) is onscreen you weren’t quite sure what was going to happen.
Even managing to nail what could have been a cheat of a ending, The Marksman is largely a bullseye for Neeson and company with only its formulaic set-up being the major detractor above all else. It’s beautifully shot by Mark Patten (a second-unit director of photography on The Martian who graduated to cinematographer) who doesn’t let the orange sun and sand of the desert swallow up the actors and if the score from TV composer Sean Callery’s feels like it’s been recycled from one of his numerous television themes at least it’s been lifted from a project that’s rousing. Here’s to hoping that Lorenz turns in more crisp work like this. Who knows? Maybe he’ll even convince Eastwood to come out of retirement if the timing is right.