During the press run-up for his new film, “The Marksman,” Liam Neeson announced that he plans on retiring from action movies after he finishes shooting a couple more currently in production. This makes sense, as he first got into making action films 12 years ago in his mid-50s, an age where some people might consider giving up on that phase of their career rather than starting it.
It also makes sense from a practical filmmaking perspective: In “The Marksman,” as in some of his more recent action outings, the film and especially its marketing goes out of its way to make Neeson look imposing without actually requiring him to move around or fight very much or generally to do most things an action star usually needs to do.
This time out, that means making Neeson a former Marine Corps sniper who served in Vietnam. Now an aging rancher living near the Mexican border with Arizona, he is struggling to stay out of foreclosure, as he’s fallen behind on his debts thanks to the crippling medical bills of his now-deceased wife. He’s a bitter, closed-off old man, and his slow descent into angry obsolescence is interrupted one day by a young Mexican boy and his mother, who have illegally crossed the border to flee from a ruthless cartel. When the mom is killed by a stray bullet, her dying wish is that Neeson’s Jim Hanson (a name that constantly put me in mind of the creator of The Muppets) bring her son, Miguel (Jacob Hanson) to family in Chicago. Unfortunately, the cartel is still after Jim, Miguel, and the big bag of cartel cash the pair are carrying.
Though certainly marketed in the subgenre of “Liam Neeson, Aging Tough Guy,” “The Marksman,” like the superior “Cold Pursuit” before it, is less enamored with editing around Neeson’s age and more about using occasional, short bursts of violence to tell a story of an empty person unmoored from the stability he once thought he had. It’s a misanthropic film about a disillusioned man who thought he had guaranteed a life for himself by following all the rules, whether those rules were actually just or not.
Jim went off to a war the U.S. shouldn’t have been in. He bankrupted himself paying unfair medical bills. He reflexively calls the border patrol every time he sees an undocumented immigrant running across his land, purposefully cutting himself off from any legitimate reason they may have to do so. And what does he have to show for it? A dead wife, a foreclosed ranch, unceasing loneliness. Jim is still so ingrained into this pattern of life that he can never fully shake it, even when he’s realized that pattern has given him nothing in return. He keeps threatening to bring Miguel back to the border control, he grouses when he thinks Miguel can’t speak English (despite Jim’s own inability to speak a lick of Spanish), and, most damningly, he’s more upset about his dead dog than Miguel’s dead mom.
Most of the movie is content to stew in this mood, slowly awakening both Jim and Miguel to the value of investing in each other and personal conscience over “the way things are supposed to be.” It’s sad, quiet and pretty, lingering on empty open roads in the golden hour. The mood is punctuated a few times with shots of the cartel trying to figure out the pair’s location and a couple of very brief moments of peril, ultimately culminating in a serviceable but not fantastic confrontation in a barn between the gang and Neeson. It’s an efficient movie; recognizing that Neeson can still act but not run and punch, it gives him a weapon that requires absolute stillness and focus rather than athletic ability.
I am probably giving “The Marksman” more credit than it’s due. The direction (Robert Lorenz) and screenplay (Lorenz, Chris Charles, and Danny Kravitz) are fine but not exemplary. It’s certainly politically confused, ridden with distrust with practically every government institution (both liberal and conservative). However, the film’s primary strength is that it leans heavily on Neeson, a real actor who can sell this stuff if he’s given the space.
I’ll put it this way. There were two other people in the theater with me, each of them sitting about 30 feet away from me. I enjoyed “The Marksman” but was never so immersed that I forgot those two were sitting somewhere behind me, potentially wearing or not wearing masks and potentially healthy or infected. If this sounds like something that would bother you, you’re probably OK to wait until the film’s available to rent.
Ryan Howard writes about pop culture for The Forest Lake Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.