By Elias Savada.
A lackluster affair, sporting cardboard characters and gag-worthy clichés.”
Just a few months ago Liam Neeson was fumbling around the generic wasteland of his usual escapist entertainment with Honest Thief. Easily forgotten stuff. He’s back in the same doldrums with a new film, in a new year unlike any other. In normal, non-pandemic times, The Marksman would be a flake in the flurry of winter releases playing opposite extended runs of Oscar contenders. With the start of 1921, which follows a uniquely challenging stretch of nearly all of last year, such January releases are part of the expanding horde of oddball items that play either directly to pay-video-on-demand, in a handful of open theaters, unspooling on some cable and streaming services, or some combination of the above.
I think The Marksman is going to big screens first in these everything-just-seems-to-blend-together days, but frankly I could care less. Sadly, it’s another mediocre grab for your dollar, whatever the method of delivery is, offering very little bang for your buck.
Having slaved away on dozens of features for 30 years, first as a second then a first assistant director before switching to producing since 2003 (including lots of Clint Eastwood films), Robert Lorenz takes over director chores for just the second time, having passably handled the underwhelming Eastwood vehicle Trouble with the Curve (2012). (In his new film, look for a cameo by a younger version of that weathered actor in a clip from 1968’s Hang ‘Em High playing on a motel TV.) Lorenz also shares writing credits with Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz. It’s not a good sign when you have three people sharing what is any first screenwriting effort. And it’s mostly a lackluster affair, sporting cardboard characters and gag-worthy clichés.
Recently there have been a handful of films with big name actors taking little birds under their wings. Tom Hanks guided Helena Zengel in the Reconstructionist Era western News of the World, or a mostly silent Caoilinn Springall hustled alongside the last man on earth (George Clooney) in the dystopian scifi entry The Midnight Sky. Yet even on its smaller scale, this odd buddy road trip film fails to excite. A young Mexican boy, Miguel (Jacob Perez), fleeing into the United States with his mother Rosa (Teresa Ruiz, flipping sides from her role as The Queen of Cocaine in the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico) finds himself bonding with Neeson’s gruff-exterior, humanitarian-interior Arizona rancher, Jim Hanson. On the run from a cartel, the trio quickly becomes a duet as the man and child dance about from town to town, stopping for just enough time to allow the stereotypical bad guys to catch up with them each time, but also allowing for some small moments of respite to allow some fine character actors (Roger Jerome, Charles David Richards) to shine some light on this otherwise quite dull matter.
As for Neeson’s character, he’s an expert shot (hence the film’s title) from his military days serving two tours in Vietnam, but it’s mostly to kill critters attacking his few remaining cattle. A tried-and-true patriot (raising and lowering his flag every day), there’s a sad sack-ness to Jim, who unfortunately has found himself in financial straits since his wife’s recent death, her medical bills having taken a chunk out of his checkbook.
The cartel’s face here is the bald-headed Mauricio Guerrero (Juan Pablo Raba), one of those nasty looking ingrates adorned with a few metal teeth. He’s an angry motherfucker, and the script makes him even madder when one of Jim’s bullets kills his brother. The film’s bad guys don’t have any nuance. Nor does the film, really. You’ve seen them before and you’ve seen them better (go watch Sicario).
Naturally, corrupt officials travel the same highways and byways as Jim and Miguel and Jackson (that’s Jim’s cute dog, along for petting duty) head north east. A sprinkling of subtitles offer viewers the weekday and dusty towns (Pueblo Rocks, New Mexico; Bridgeport, Oklahoma; Van Buren, Arkansas; etc.) the boy and his guardian travel through. At least two of these stopovers suggest the location manager didn’t pay much attention to detail, as the film was actually shot in New Mexico and Ohio. Jim likes his liquor hard, but in one particular bar scene, when the camera catches the establishment’s selection of craft beer tap handles, you can easily spot Spaten (Germany), Ithaca Beer (New York), Old Nation Brewery (Michigan), and Columbus Brewing (Ohio). Yeah, no Shiner Bock! I’m laughing with my craft beer buddies at beers that aren’t even distributed there.
Jim’s only good friend is Sarah Reynolds (Katheryn Winnick a.k.a. Lagertha in the History Channel series Vikings), a prodigal daughter of sorts. She’s a friendly border agent that has no real chance on character development. Most of her lines are delivered into a telephone.
A sly, inside joke appears on the shelf in a liquor store supposedly in Oklahoma (again, with brewery signs that suggest a different locale). Jim is perusing the shelves when he spots a bottle of rum that reflects on a particular phrase uttered by the character Neeson played in Clash of the Titans (2010).
The screenplay suffers from one other nonsensical sequence, when Jim and Miguel have just passed a signpost indicating they are but 52 miles from Chicago, even if the distance between their last stop (late the night before) and the Windy City is over 700 miles. They have miraculously hopscotched and time jumped through all of Missouri and most of Illinois, without a yawn of tiredness.
It’s sad when anyone has to point out such trivial errors in any film, but the folks behind The Marksman offer us such a broad target, you can’t miss them. With such a lukewarm urgency to the film’s story, it’s easy to get distracted. Potential viewers would be wise to ignore the film’s tagline: “It’s Too Late to Turn Back.” It’s never too late.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).