Movie Review: “The Marksman” (2021)

There are a large number of things which I don’t understand about the new Liam Neeson movie, “The Marksman.” I have questions about the number of roads that lead from Arizona to Chicago, the time traveling it would take to travel from one to the other, the nature of stab wounds, and so much more; so very much more. Under normal review circumstances, such questions might matter to a greater extent. However, this is a Liam Neeson movie, and as I told you in October, these things are their own genre. Let me add to that a corollary now: as their own genre, they follow their own set of rules. Oftentimes, those rules allow for logic to be ignored and that is what we find here.

Directed by Robert Lorenz, “The Marksman” finds Liam Neeson playing Jim Hanson, an Arizona rancher with (you guessed it) a very particular set of skills. Hanson did two tours in Vietnam as a member of the Marines and is quite good with a rifle (some might say that he’s a marksman, even though I don’t think the movie ever actually does save for in the title). He holds his liquor less well than he holds a weapon, but he’s only returned to alcohol recently as his ranch is going under. He was wiped out due to his wife’s medical bills (she passed away anyway). Hanson also has a predilection for calling the Border Patrol when he sees undocumented migrants (he refers to them as “IAs”) crossing his ranch, which happens to sit at the border with Mexico.

It is, in fact, a rather callous introduction that we get to Hanson. There are attempts made to soften the edges—he flies the flag and gives water to elderly undocumented individuals who have been left behind by coyotes—but there’s something hard about him, and that only increases when he wants to call Border Patrol after stopping a boy, Miguel (Jacob Perez), and his mother, Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), when he comes upon them.

The way in which Hanson speaks about people from south of the border most definitely makes me uncomfortable. Trying to keep them alive is nice, but there’s a coldness about it all which, rather than making him a tough guy, makes him a bad one, and I’m not convinced that he’s fully redeemed by the time the movie ends.

Without going into too much (more) of the plot, Hanson ends up agreeing to take Miguel to his family up in Chicago and the movie turns into a zany road trip comedy. There are laughs galore.

No, of course it doesn’t do that and the humor is scant. “The Marksman” turns into a deadly cat-and-mouse game with Hanson and Miguel constantly trying to elude members of a drug cartel, led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba), that are hot on their heels. The cartel members seem to know roughly where Hanson and Miguel are even when they only buy things with cash.

“The Marksman” is a mediocre Neeson affair. As exciting as it can be at times, the decisions the characters make are ludicrous and the ability of Mauricio to always be within a few miles no matter anyone is on the trip is silly. There are just so many things about the movie that make one scratch their head. Of course, I told you up top that Neeson movies don’t necessarily have to follow any kind of logic and that is, unquestionably, what we see here.

Unlike other adventures within the Neeson genre, this one eschews bigger explosions, choosing to go for some blood and a car accident or two. Perhaps there was a budgetary reason for this, perhaps not, but Lorenz does everything within his power to make our not seeing deaths more powerful than our witnessing them. That endeavor is not entirely successful, especially when the tactic is repeated.

The real question that has to be answered though when one tries to assess if the movie works is whether or not the audience believes this relationship between Hanson and Miguel – do we think that these two characters are really on an 1,800 mile journey (more, one guesses, with the route they choose)? So, yes, by the end of the movie I accept their relationship. I accept the way it started and the way it ended even if I don’t buy some of the middle bits. Certainly, I accept that relationship more than the one Hanson has with his stepdaughter, Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), who works for the Border Patrol. That particular one seems to exist mostly to provide a role for a woman which lasts longer than Rosa’s.

Perhaps though the weakest part of the film is Mauricio and the cartel members. There is an attempt to make the matter personal for Mauricio with Hanson killing his brother, but as we don’t care for Mauricio at all, as he’s painted as nothing more than a villain, this doesn’t work. Nor does another, wholly separate and out of the blue attempt, at making him human closer to the end of the movie. Neeson actioners really do need a decent villain on the other side of the equation, and we do not get that here – Mauricio is not in charge of the cartel, he’s an enforcer and while the cartel is big and scary, it isn’t big and scary in a way that feels real (whether or not it is).

As I said with “Honest Thief,” you have a pretty good idea going in to “The Marksman” what you’re going to get. So, if you want to sit down and watch a rejiggered western starring Liam Neeson, “The Marksman” will do the trick. Is it better than “Honest Thief?” Well, I’m giving it a half-star more, but maybe that’s because I like westerns. Certainly, no one is going to be wowed with the way in which Hanson utilizes his particular set of skills.

photo credit: Open Road Films

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