The Liam Neeson action movie has become a genre all its own to the point where it feels like every year we get at least one such film. For 2021 we can add “The Marksman” to that list, one of four films Neeson has been involved with under the Open Road Films banner to date. “The Marksman” follows Neeson as former Marine Jim Hanson (not to be confused with the famed puppeteer) who attempts to protect and transport a young Mexican boy from a drug cartel taking them on a journey across middle America. If that brief summary sounds familiar and cliché, that’s because it is and “The Marksman” does very little to escape that. I personally thought it was a fun time waster, but outside of Neeson’s typically gruff and engaging performance “The Marksman” fails to define itself in any special or unique way.
“The Marksman’s” story is one we’ve seen time and time again. Aging old man who lost his wife finds himself helping a child (usually from a minority group) against drug or crime related men who want the kid either dead or to join them. Think severely discounted and watered down “Gran Torino” and you have this movie. “The Marksman” goes in pretty much every direction you expect it to go from Neeson bonding with the young boy, played by Jacob Perez, to the predictable game of chicken they play with their stereotype-ridden criminal pursuers. Open Road Films has made plenty of these movies, that being relatively bloodless stories that follow genre formulas shamelessly, and I can promise you that if you’ve seen action thrillers in the past ten years you’ve seen all the best things, and probably the worst, “The Marksman” has to offer.
I won’t call it unwatchable though. Neeson provides the kind of engaging performance you’d expect, although at this point even at his best he feels like he’s rolling through the motions because there’s rarely any real variety between his action movie characters. There were some fun moments and the relationship Jim builds with the young Maurico is charming even if it develops from animosity to a father-son bond way too quickly. For all of its clichés, those clichés work although much more development of these characters and Jim’s personality beyond “old bitter man with a dead wife” would have added some much-needed complexity to his character arc. A huge complain I have though is we rarely get to see Jim as a marksman except for the initial standoff and the climactic showdown. Even then the film doesn’t stress his skills as much more than the average experienced gun owner, so the title is a bit misleading and describes a trait of the man that plays an extremely small role in his character overall.
Probably the biggest gripe I have with the film though is its unwillingness to MEAN anything. Yeah, the bond formed between Jim and Maurico is nice and all, but we’ve seen that dynamic done many times in much better ways in past films. In fact, lets go back to “Gran Torino”. The idea of that film is similar but there you saw an old man overcome his racism to help someone. In “The Marksman” that tension is completely lost. There are times where it feels like Jim may or may not have racist tendencies, but then there are times where he seems more compassionate. It’s easy to be confused over whether his actions are to help the immigrants or spite them…or maybe both. Throughout the movie we also see way-too-subtle attempts to comment on the American border situation. Save for one small moment where Jim asks his border patrol officer step-daughter if an amnesty request for Maurico would pass “the way things are now”, “The Marksman” tetters between political commentary and remaining neutral on the issue and sadly it’s inability to pick a lane, combined with it’s overt use of clichés and embrace of frankly outdated xenophobia in how it portrays life in Mexico and its cartel-loyal villains, makes “The Marksman” feel indecisive in its theming and well behind the times.
“The Marksman” can be fun to a certain degree, but from my perspective it really didn’t offer much of anything memorable to hold on to. It depends heavily on clichés and genre formulas that have been done much better in previous films. However, they’ve also been done much worse. I commented on how xenophobic some of the elements of this film could be, but it’s not something like “Rambo: Last Blood” which wasn’t only cliché but fully embraced the xenophobia of the past. At least “The Marksman” is a little more self-aware than that, but honestly not by much. There are some things to appreciate in this movie like its fun action scenes and Neeson’s predictably on-board performance, but I’ll forget “The Marksman” rather quickly in favor of better Neeson action films. To end on a horrible pun, in my opinion “The Marksman” definitely misses the mark.