THE MARKSMAN is one of this year’s Liam Neeson (THE DEAD POOL) Old Man Action movies. It came out on disc a month or two ago and had played in theaters in January, wherever it is that those were open at that time. It’s one of the rare theatrical releases if this era that did not get delayed by the pandemic – in fact they pushed it up one week. Had things been normal I definitely would’ve seen it at an early afternoon showing at Pacific Place with four or five other loners in the theater and I would’ve been satisfied as I walked out after the credits ended and the young man with the garbage can at the door told me to have a good day as I emerged from the quiet auditorium to the cheesy narrator promoting the A-List on recordings in the lobby.
(Sorry – I wrote this review before I’d been back to theaters, must’ve been getting nostalgic.)
Neeson plays a very fictionalized version of Jim Henson called Jim Hanson. He’s a Vietnam vet who lives right next to the Mexican border and has recently run out of money because of his late wife’s cancer treatments. Aside from one drunken scene where he does a really good low grumbly voice, it’s the standard Neeson accent, but he’s so All-American he literally has an American flag draped over his shoulder when a guy from the bank (Alex Knight, Narcos: Mexico) shows up to tell him his ranch might be taken from him. I like the little bit that Jim tells him he spread his wife’s ashes on the hill over there and the guy says “I’m sorry for your loss.” Trying to seem humane without even following what he’s talking about.
Jim is the kind of guy who has a walkie-talkie to call in what he calls “I.A.s” crossing his property. But at least he’s the kind who will bring water and call for a medic for one who gets left behind.
He’s not in a sympathy-for-other-human-beings kind of mood when he spots Rosa (Teresa Ruiz, Narcos: Mexico, SICARIO), a Mexican woman we know is running from a cartel her brother stole from. She and her son Miguel (Jacob Perez) make it through a break in the fence but are spotted by Jim. He warns them that this stretch of land is too far to walk, but he won’t drive them, even for money – he says he’ll call the Border Patrol, as if that will help them.
But he gets mixed up with them anyway because an SUV full of gunmen led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba, Narcos, PEPPERMINT) try to kill them, so he fires back and tells Rosa and Miguel to get in his truck. And then calls the Border Patrol.
Rosa is killed, though, and the next day when he realizes she left him a bag of money when she begged him to bring her son to relatives in Chicago, the waves of “oh jesus, I’m an asshole” guilt hit him hard enough that he decides to sneak the kid out of detainment and hit the road. Mauricio and company are on their trail not just for the money, or the kid, but to avenge Jim for having killed Mauricio’s brother in the skirmish.
Before all the shit goes down there’s a nice scene where Jim is in some dive drinking away his misery and the bartender knows to call his stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick, SATAN’S LITTLE HELPER, HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD, POLAR) to come talk to him, drive him home, take his boots off, tuck him in on his couch. She works at the Border Patrol so she’s his in there and calls him throughout the movie to try to get him to come home, as well as give him information.
The poor kid is even less happy with the situation than Jim is, and doesn’t speak at all for a while and then shocks him (and no one else) by speaking perfect (and not even accented) English. There’s a nice moment when Miguel has yet to give Jim the time of day, but Jim sees him petting his dog Jackson and smiles knowing that they at least have that in common. Jim and Miguel finally start to talk and get along during a long dinner at some diner, but Jim ends up getting drunk. Miguel takes Jackson for a walk while Jim is passed out in the truck. I like those little moments.
Here’s a tiny detail: Jim usually wears a hat, but there’s a scene early on where he has it off and you can see a tan line across his forehead. I wondered if that happened naturally during filming or if they faked it for the shot. Either way, I appreciate that they wanted it in there.
There’s a cliche they use that I tend to like: cartel killer Mauricio knows Jim is a Marine and likes to say that they’re both soldiers, that they have alot in common. Later, he finds and steals a medal from Jim’s house, carries it around as a memento. I think he likes him.
It’s an action movie, because it’s a constant chase with some shootouts, and a tense scene where Jim beats up a highway cop. And there’s a cool part where he uses a shovel as a tripod for sniping. But the appeal is mostly that good old fashioned grump-reluctantly-helps-kid-and-then-warms-up-to-him arc.
It’s directed and co-written by Robert Lorenz, producer and/or assistant director on a dozen Clint Eastwood movies and, with TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, the only person besides Clint to direct Clint since IN THE LINE OF FIRE in 1993 (unless you count CASPER in 1995). It absolutely seems like it must’ve been a script written for Clint that he turned down because it was too traditional for him at this stage in his career, or because he just did a Mexican border/cartel/old-man-driving-around-in-a-truck movie with THE MULE. (But then he went and did CRY MACHO instead! Man, this script must feel so rejected!)
Of course, it could also just be that Lorenz worked on all those Eastwood movies and he likes that kind of thing so that’s what he’s gonna make on his own. And I approve of that. But you can picture Clint playing this exact character: gruff, broken, hard-drinking widower sadsack who seems kinda racist and heartless but clearly has a conscience and decides to do the right thing but not be friendly about it and then bonds with the kid and becomes a better person. In Clint’s version he’d be a Korea vet instead of Vietnam, but he’d share Neeson’s dislike of phones. You can also picture Clint saying this dialogue, some of it better than Neeson would. In his face off at the border he says to Mauricio, “Sorry Pancho, these illegals are mine.” Tell me that’s not one of Clint’s ignorant-asshole-that-you-will-grow-to-love lines.
The filmatism is also pretty straightforward and not too flashy, like Clint’s, with the exception of a GPS-phone-screen-to-drone-shot-of-highway dissolve that reminded me of that cool map shot I talked about in my review of THE EMPTY MAN and AM1200. But Clint definitely would’ve had better, subtler music. Most of the score by Sean Callery (A MOM FOR CHRISTMAS, 24) is standard quasi-Zimmer/Holkenborg bombast, with an occasional part where you gotta assume they temp-tracked it with SICARIO. At least it gets more old school majestic and westerny for the end credits.
There’s a direct reference to Clint when Miguel is watching HANG ‘EM HIGH on TV in a motel. And I will go ahead and qualify it as an indirect reference that Jim raves to Miguel about hot dogs in Chicago and mentions “No ketchup, though.”
But hey, there’s also what I think is a Liam Neeson self-reference. When Sarah identifies which cartel guy is after Jim she tells him over the phone, “This Mauricio will find you, and when he does, he will kill you.” I wish they would’ve worked in a “Take the fucking elephant!” somewhere.
Once again, I have to note that this is another Mexican border/deadly cartels endangering Americans movie, like RAMBO: LAST BLOOD, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, PEPPERMINT, MISS BALA and WE DIE YOUNG. Its new innovation in fearmongering is to show that the house where the cartel monitors databases to follow Jim via credit card transactions is in a generic Arizona suburb. THEY ARE HERE AMONG US.
Yes, there are cartels in real life and they are bad, but how many American movies can you name that are about Mexicans and not about cartels? My favorite bad guys to see whooped in action movies are white supremacists, but it would start to bother me if the majority of movies about white people were about the Klan. Even if they always had one nice white family to show you the good ones.
I gotta give this one points though for the scene where Sarah tries to convince Jim to return Miguel to the Border Patrol. When Jim says that deporting him would be a death sentence, she says he can apply for asylum.
“Can you guarantee he’ll get it?” Jim asks. “Especially the way things are now?” I think that might make it the only one of the listed movies to acknowledge that our immigration policies might be less than humane, that we have a duty to help people and can’t just blame it all on cartels and coyotes.
(This also has a few white cops and border agents who have sold out to the cartel, but that’s pretty standard.)
I want to say something about the ending, so this is an ENDING SPOILERS PARAGRAPH. I was honestly moved by Miguel arriving in the welcoming arms of his family members, and turning to smile at Jim, only to find that he has slipped away like Mad Max or Darkman. Then I was a little turned off that after Jim gets on a bus they go for that cliche of him opening his jacket to reveal to us that he was mortally wounded during the climax and didn’t let on. Then I was moved again by his smile of satisfaction that he managed to do this last good thing right before dying. However, I feel that some of his achievement is diminished by the fact that he chooses to leave his corpse to be dealt with by this poor bus driver. Not to mention traumatizing several innocent commuters. Find some bushes or something, Jim. Come on.
But what can I say? I love this formula, I love a good Clint movie, I love a good Neeson movie, and Neeson doing a Clint movie is actually better than many of the regular Neeson movies. So thank you – you have a good day yourself, young man.