The Marksman offers Liam Neeson the opportunity to embody a classic Clint Eastwood-esque character in a conventional yet compelling action drama.
By now, a narrative about an ornery older man with a hardened heart setting off on an expansive expedition with a chipper younger child in tow is nothing new. Over the last decade alone, we watched this tale take place in films like True Grit, Up, and Logan, and the similarly structured News of the World was only released one month ago. At this point, it would seem like this story has been played out, with little surprises left in store. The older man has to learn lessons about life and love from the child, he discovers how to open up to the world once more, and he ultimately protects his young partner from peril in the third act, sometimes even staring anew with this tyke as a father figure of sorts – blah blah blah, been there, done that.
And yet, these movies are constant cash cows, bringing in audiences time and time again who crave the comfort of a familiar fable, only with new settings and stars. The secret to their success? Adding in new actors and fiddling with the formula ever so slightly to make a film feel “fresh” (while still exhibiting the emotional highs and lows that crowds come to see), and Liam Neeson’s latest actioner, The Marksman, has done just that. While it won’t earn any points for originality, thanks to its mighty leading man and his charming chemistry with his child co-star, it’s still appealing enough to earn your attention anyway.
The Marksman follows Arizona rancher Jim Hanson (Neeson), an ex-Marine sharpshooter and recent widower who is currently down-on-his-luck, evading eviction notices and wishing to be left alone by the world. Aside from casual check-ins by his cop daughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick, of The Dark Tower and ABC’s Big Sky), he lives a lonely existence, essentially in isolation. Unfortunately, this detachment from society is disrupted in a major way one day, when he witnesses two Mexican migrants – mother Rosa (Teresa Ruiz, of Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico) and her 11-year-old son Miguel (Jacob Perez) – crossing the border to dodge drug cartel assassins who have targeted their family. Initially, this causes Hanson to struggle with a crisis of conscience – does he turn these individuals in, or does he defy the law and “do the right thing”?
While Hanson eventually decides to help the distressed duo, Rosa is slain in a shootout, and in her dying wish, she asks Jim to take her son to safety by carting him off to her family in Chicago. With Miguel in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Jim is driven to disregard legality yet again in order to break him out and bring the child under his care so that the two can hit the road and avoid the assassins on their tail. Though Jim and Miguel couldn’t be more dissimilar at the start of their travels, both long-suffering souls look to each other for solace and support, and over time, Jim may finally find something (or someone) to live for once more.
Right off the bat, it’s hard not to see the similarities between Neeson’s Jim Hanson and a number of protagonists played by actor Clint Eastwood in the past. Whether it’s due to Hanson’s weathered, world-weary demeanor or his grievances with the government and its inability to provide assistance to everyday working-class Americans, it’s easy to envision Eastwood inhabiting this role in an alternative cut of some kind. Perhaps that could be the influence of writer-director Robert Lorenz (Trouble with the Curve), who has produced a plethora of Eastwood’s pictures in the 21st Century, from the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby to the record-breaking American Sniper. Thanks to this insight, Lorenz colors the character of Jim Hanson with the steely stoicism that has become a signature mark of many an Eastwoodian hero, forming yet another figure for the “forgotten man” of America to identify with and subsequently anchoring his film in the same admirable authenticity that is often associated with the acclaimed 90-year-old auteur.
Thankfully, while these influences are immensely apparent – and Neeson does indeed make an active effort at embodying Eastwood as best he can – The Marksman’s Jim Hanson is still able to stand on his own at the end of the day, and it’s refreshing to see Neeson in a more reflective role that stands apart from the invincible badasses he’s most often identified with. This isn’t to say that Hanson lacks the capability to clash with criminals when the moment calls for it – as he more than proves his command in combat in the film’s frenetic finale – but Neeson’s characterization is more contemplative than usual, allowing us to truly perceive Jim’s pain (in regard to both his wife’s premature passing and his current economic concerns) and comprehend his contempt for the world, setting the stage for his eventual emotional evolution upon meeting Miguel.
Perez’s Miguel may be far from the fast-talking Mattie Ross of True Grit and not quite as expressively emotive as News of the World’s Johanna, but he’s a compelling companion for Neeson’s Jim nonetheless, and the child actor proves to be amiable addition to this action-packed adventure. It takes a few scenes for Perez to fully come into his own, but once Jim and Miguel are off on their course to Chicago, he and Neeson establish an engaging repartee, and Perez’s pluckiness perfectly contrasts with Neeson’s capriciousness. The young star even shines in his sentimental scenes as well, fittingly illustrating his fear as an immigrant and deftly displaying his distress over his mother’s demise. While the rest of the supporting cast – especially the antagonistic drug cartel assassins – are sadly stuck playing more simplistic stereotypes, the characters of Jim and Miguel are well-realized enough to counteract these critiques, and the convincing chemistry between Neeson and Miguel neutralizes most other negatives.
Though The Marksman isn’t as concerned with constant conflict as other Neeson odysseys (choosing to actually spend most of its time fleshing out the friendship between Jim and Miguel), when the action does arise, Lorenz captures the commotion with the appropriate ardor and attentiveness that it deserves, staging skirmishes and shootouts that send one’s sense of suspense skyrocketing. Even at age 68, Neeson has still got it, and Lorenz skillfully knows how to play to his strengths in these setpieces. The score from composer Sean Callery (Fox’s 24, Netflix’s Jessica Jones) also assists here, infusing the story with intensity and accentuating the anxiety that Jim and Miguel experience on their taxing trek across the country, imparting this apprehension onto the audience.
The Marksman tells a straightforward story with few shocking twists or turns, but with such lively leads at the front of the film in the form of Liam Neeson and his child co-star Jacob Perez, one is able to overlook this otherwise predictable plot and enjoy the Eastwoodian epic for its sheer entertainment value. Once again, fans of Neeson’s action star schtick will likely find much to be satisfied with here, and as he continues making his “man on a mission” movies, it’s nice to see the sort of differentiation that is displayed here, indicating that there’s much more thematic terrain for him to cover as he keeps generating his genre fare.
The Marksman was released in US theaters on Friday January 15, 2021, and is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Read our interview with child star Jacob Perez on The Marksman.