'The Marksman' Shoots for Thrills and Misses by Miles Directed by Robert Lorenz

Starring Liam Neeson, Katheryn Winnick, Juan Pablo Raba, Teresa Ruiz
'The Marksman' Shoots for Thrills and Misses by Miles Directed by Robert Lorenz
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There's a telling moment towards the second act climax of writer and director Robert Lorenz's The Marksman. Grizzled Arizona rancher Jim Hanson (Liam Neeson) and illegal immigrant tween and Mexican national Miguel (Jacob Perez) are holed up in a nondescript motel during a mad-dash road trip to Chicago. As the unlikely pair attempt to lay low and desperately stay one step ahead of cutthroat enforcer Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) and his gang of mostly-mute cartel killers, they sit on stuffy single beds and watch American icon Clint Eastwood on a fuzzy TV set, doing his thing in 1968's Hang 'Em High.

Much like Post's revisionist Western, which sought to capitalize on the popularity and stylistic verve of Italian spaghetti Westerns, it's clear that Lorenz is indebted to Eastwood's extensive filmography for much of his artistic zeal — a connection bolstered by Lorenz's producer credits on numerous Eastwood pictures like Mystic River (2003), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Gran Torino (2008) and American Sniper (2014), along with directing the now-nonagenarian actor in his feature debut, 2012's Trouble with the Curve. Even the boilerplate plot of The Marksman — cowritten with Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz — reads like an ad-lib writers' room Eastwood pitch.

Neeson plays a destitute, widowed rancher who spends most of his time looking sullen and driving along the "tremendous" US-Mexico border wall. After Miguel's uncle runs afoul of the cartel back at home, his mother Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) uses a bag of stolen cartel cash to pay for a coyote to get them across the border, only for Mauricio's gang to catch up to them as they make their crossing. Hanson, a Vietnam War veteran and former Marine sniper, stumbles across this scene and intervenes, fatally wounding Mauricio's brother and failing to save Rosa, who dies shortly after they make their escape. Realizing that the now-orphaned boy will be deported and inevitably fall back into the bloody hands of the cartel, Hanson breaks him out of Border Control custody and endeavours — against his better judgement — to honour Rosa's dying wish by escorting Miguel to the relative safety of his extended family in Chicago. Cue the oh-so-serious road-trip shenanigans and thriller chase hijinks.

Hamstrung by Lorenz's paper-thin characterization and glacial pacing, the relationship between Hanson and Miguel never really gets off the ground. Predictable moments of tension are generated by the threat of abandonment or what to do with the bag of cartel cash, but there's little emotional resonance between the unlikely pair. Miguel initially blames Hanson for his mother's death and then, after eating some Pop Tarts, doesn't. Hanson speaks to the boy in gruff, belaboured Spanish phrases, telling him to quit believing in heaven while at the same declaring to his Border Patrol officer step-daughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick) that her mother's spirit is guiding him to rescue Miguel.

It's strange that, for a film titled The Marksman, the protagonist barely uses his rifle or any weapon of note. Apart from a few patient shots taken in the third act stand-off, Hanson's skills as a sniper and Marine don't really come into play in a big way. He's also kind of terrible at being on the run, too, continuing to use his ancient Chevy pickup (which requires fixing to even make the trip cross-country) and credit card after it's very clear that the cartel is tracking his movements. For his part, Neeson mostly looks bored and tired in the role of Hanson. The cowboy archetype aesthetic fits him like a spur-of-the-moment cosplay decision, and his lazy attempts at an American accent often fall apart mid-sentence. It seems that in the post-Taken, post-2019 cancellation nadir of his action film career, Neeson is content to sleepwalk through these "Old Man with [Insert Skill Here]" roles and, for whatever reason, Lorenz is more than happy to oblige him.

What makes The Marksman even more of a chore is how viciously apolitical it is. With a setting on the U.S.-Mexico border, and characters literally working for Border Patrol, you might expect a film from 2021 to make statements about the political decisions that generate a border crisis. But no. Instead, we get Hanson at a bar, between shots, lamenting the government's inaction on the affair and how he wishes they'd just "sort the mess out" — whatever that means. Lorenz is all-too-happy to crib visuals and plot elements from infinitely better films like No Country for Old Men (2007), Sicario (2015), or Eastwood's The Mule (2018) without bothering to invest in any of the philosophical nuance or moral complexity.

Elsewhere, the film makes vague overtures to police corruption and the cartel's domestic influence before leaving these threads deliberately understated. There's even a couple of scenes where Hanson goes out of his way to buy a physical map from a gas station (because plot device needed) and to tell Miguel exactly why he doesn't have a cell phone ("Nobody needs to call me, and I like it that way"). It's all about as thrilling as watching someone read out an "OK Boomer" meme.

While The Marksman should at least be digestible in terms of action, drama and politics, Lorenz's under-written script, leaden dialogue and flat direction make for one of the most milquetoast and unremarkable thrillers in recent years. The film also goes out of its way to kill a dog for no discernible reason, and that's just one of many reasons to skip this dud. (Elevation)