'The Marksman' Review: The Latest Liam Neeson Action Movie Aims for the Heart

It’s not a good time for much, but weirdly enough, it is a very good time to be a Liam Neeson fan. While DC-heads just had to watch its latest offering on their televisions and Marvel-stans don’t really know when they’re likely to see Black Widow, Liam Neeson has starred in not one, but two theatrical offerings during the pandemic: first the generic and boring Honest Thief and now the much better but still pretty generic The Marksman. Congrats to you, if your favorite films involve grizzled Irish tough guys with huge hearts of gold.

And even if you’re tired of this fare, you could do a lot worse than get stuck watching The Marksman. The film involves a road trip of sorts, featuring Liam Neeson as a cowboy protecting an immigrant boy on the run from a drug cartel. Their trip from Arizona to Chicago should be simple enough, but an untrustworthy truck and a ton of movie coincidences favoring the villains keep their arrival in suspense right up until the bloody end, especially if you’ve never seen a movie before.

Aside from its occasional bursts of violence, however, The Marksman offers a relaxing ride. The boy seems genuinely tough, not too precocious. Neeson’s character has a classic cute movie dog. They eat at restaurants and discuss Chicago hotdogs and generally bond in a way that feels earned. At one point, Neeson teaches the kid to shoot a gun. Stuff like that.

Measured against other films, there isn’t much here, but that’s also by design. These movies are meant to pop up one day, only to become interchangeable with the sea of other Liam Neeson films soon after. They might as well not have titles. When they do, it’s best if they broadly describe Neeson’s character: “Oh, he’s a marksman in this one. Here’s one where he’s an honest thief.” As such, it’s better to compare them with each other rather than the slew of other films that might come out each calendar year.

This one has a bit more character than normal. It’s PG-13, but it makes sure to grab its F-Bomb. The film smartly condenses the cartel hunting Neeson and the kid to one main tough-guy. He’s not on that The Counselor-tier of gritty realism, but he’s mean enough to feel serious. And he has a genuine axe to grind since Neeson kills his brother in the film’s opening incident of marksmanship. 

Neeson himself plays a guy named Jim Hanson. This character is a lot of things: a Vietnam vet, a widower, an alcoholic, someone economically destroyed by America’s brutal healthcare system. Few of these character quirks come into direct play. You’d expect his drinking problem to eventually become a big deal, but it never really does. It’s just window dressing. He’s not riddled with guilt or seeking redemption or anything, just sad and old and broke, waiting around to finally die. These films frequently try to make Neeson too perfect. The Taken series, for instance, was way too interested in making him the world’s greatest (absent) dad. The problem is affection-seeking dads to adult children are kind of lame. Here he has an adult step-kid and she spends most of her time taking care of him. It’s way better to watch him bond with a child over time because it means he can start rough and grow softer from there. It also helps that The Marksman cribs from the Western suite of action tropes. He can be noble and teach a kid to shoot a pistol at the same time. Jim Hanson isn’t perfect. He’s not good at much. He’s talented at sniping but he doesn’t even do that very often.

Despite touching upon illegal immigration, The Marksman doesn’t take a strong political stance, so don’t come for any sort of polemic on the issue. Hanson snitches on illegal immigrants he sees, but he’s compassionate enough to call an ambulance for one in need of medical attention. The film does have obvious sympathies for the mother and son running to America solely to save their own lives, and portrays nearly every authority figure near the border as corrupt. Meanwhile, Jim Hanson’s experience as a typically upstanding, hardworking American who fought for his country, yet got crushed under the boot heel of economic oppression does position him as a bit of a lapsed Republican, someone who made sure no one was peeking when he checked the box for Biden. But, like his alcoholism, it’s more window dressing than anything the film directly utilizes or comments upon.

If you watch enough of these films, one can easily forget Neeson’s ability to do challenging work. Here, he’s just kind of coasting. There’s a vague attempt at an accent early on, but it doesn’t stick. He only gives us one good “Y’all” and it’s just as awkward as that sounds. Neeson spends most of the film just being Liam Neeson. That’s okay because Liam Neeson is a cool guy to be. On stature and performance alone, he’s still one of Star Wars’ most interesting Jedi, for instance. He’s a movie star for a very good reason. And The Marksman makes better use of him than these films normally do. Nevertheless, it lacks vitality or distinction enough to set it above other Liam Neeson action films. You know what you’re getting into as soon as it starts. Ultimately, The Marksman hits its generic target. It is the kind of film you watch on accident more than seek out, but you probably won’t regret the accident.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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