Liam Neeson's Action Thriller 'The Marksman' Misses Its Target
The 'Taken' star is an odd fit for this neo-western that feels like a Clint Eastwood movie without Clint Eastwood.
How long can Liam Neeson's grizzled reign as Hollywood's most in-demand older action hero last? In a recent interview, the 68-year-old Taken star suggested his days of dismantling murderous henchmen, rescuing his kidnapped family members, and deploying his "special set of skills" might be drawing to a close. "There’s a couple in the pipeline and, then I think that will probably be it," he told Entertainment Tonight. His ass-kicking twilight years are upon us, so it makes sense that his typically high-octane thrillers might grow more somber and self-reflective.
At least, that's the feeling you'll get while watching the sturdy-yet-weary The Marksman, a Neeson-led neo-Western that debuted in theaters over the weekend and knocked Wonder Woman 1984 from the top of the meager COVID-era box office chart. Tasked with playing Jim, a retired Marine-turned rancher with a dearly departed wife and a steadily maintained drinking regiment, the Irish-born actor brings the expected gravitas and charisma to the role. The character's painstakingly telegraphed emotional journey, from closed-off crank to selfless avenger, and his deadly mission, which involves protecting a young boy named Miguel (Jacob Perez) from violent cartel members after his mother is killed in a shootout, are within Neeson's thematic wheelhouse. But he looks a little out of place wearing a cowboy hat and squinting at the dusty Arizona landscape. On a stylistic level, it's an odd fit.
The character's grumpiness and the story's elegiac tone brings to mind Clint Eastwood, who made an idiosyncratic border drama, The Mule, in 2018 and has been deconstructing the mythology of the aging gunslinger since at least 1992's Unforgiven. This is not just a random case of Eastwood uncanny valley-dom, either. The Marksman's director and co-writer Robert Lorenz made his directorial debut with 2012's Eastwood vehicle Trouble With the Curve, and he produced about a dozen Eastwood movies before that. At 90 years old, Eastwood might have aged out of The Marksman—or, in all likelihood, he's too busy shooting his next project—but his star persona lingers over the movie like a strong musk. (A scene from Hang ’Em High even pops up on the TV in a motel at one point in a hat-tipping moment.)
The inevitable comparisons to better Eastwood movies—my mind drifted to 1993's great outlaw-and-kid road-trip drama A Perfect World while watching—aren't the only problems The Marksman must contend with. The main villain, an obsessive gang leader (Juan Pablo Raba), lacks depth or specificity, and a side plot involving Jim's stepdaughter (Katheryn Winnick), a put-upon Border Patrol agent, is underdeveloped. The core relationship between Jim and Miguel can be sweet and poignant, but their journey to Chicago, where Miguel has family waiting for him, is so plodding that it drains the movie of suspense or tension. When action does occur, it's mostly uninspired bursts of gunplay.
On the surface, it's easy to see what potentially drew Neeson to the material. While the role lets him find notes of grief and perseverance to play, the immigrant-on-the-run setup might feel like it's "saying something" or "speaking to the moment." The Marksman is the latest in a string of recent action movies that frame the Mexico-United States border as a fraught psychic terrain for America's aging white male warrior class. (Rambo: Last Blood might be the low point of this not exactly dignified micro-genre.) Unfortunately, these movies rarely display much curiosity about the struggles of the other characters or the nuances of the region. They're often singularly focussed on redemption, which is too bad. Hanging up one's spurs doesn't have to be such a mechanical act.
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