It just wouldn’t be the start of a new year of movies if we didn’t have a fresh actioneer with Liam Neeson behind the barrel of some sort of firearm. Luckily–or, in this case, unluckily–The Marksman dryly ticks the box, somehow underwhelming in its action and thrills while simultaneously engaging in a nonexistent discourse on the state of Mexican-American narco-culture and exacerbating a wanton lack of self-awareness regarding the casual attitude and detrimental effects of American gun ownership.
Director: Robert Lorenz
Release Date: January 15, 2021
On the border of Mexico, Jim Hanson (Neeson) is a gruff-but-moral Vietnam veteran, an old rancher whose wife has passed and stares down eviction from his humble abode alongside his trusty canine companion. Meanwhile a little further south, Miguel (Jacob Perez) and his mother flee a cadre of cartel gangsters, led by the sadistic Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba). His uncle having ripped the narcos off and saddled Miguel’s mother with the stolen money, the thugs are looking to collect and tie up loose ends. Fleeing to the border, the mother and son come across Jim, minding his business with his long rifle. A scuffle of ideals between the thugs and Jim’s staunch individualism ends at the barrel of his rifle, leaving Miguel’s mother dead, the narcos wounded, and Jim looking after the boy and the stolen money.
The Marksman is every movie you’ve seen over the past decade that deals with the ongoing tragedy of Mexican-American relations, re: the Drug War, and nowhere near as good as the best (but also, perhaps, not as bad as the worst). Stark sunrises over the dusty plains evoke Roger Deakins’ Sicario cinematography (and I could absolutely swear that The Marksmen entirely steals some of that film’s musical cues) while roadside hotels play host to shootouts that feel like a sleepwalker’s take on the tension of No Country for Old Men. The basic cobbling of a gruff older man traveling across a scarred Southwestern America with a kid in tow was done in Logan, for Pete’s sake! Which is all to say no, The Marksman doesn’t need to be original. It does, however, need to be good. Which it is not.
The road-trip thriller is a common enough formula, one able to host any number of spins, but when The Marksman so-drearily and predictably plots out its action and story beats the entire endeavor churns along on cruise-control, most-offensively in the character department. Neeson, still a talent, is wasted as Jim, a quiet veteran who doesn’t need a cell phone and apparently loves Chicago hot dogs; carting Miguel to his family in the Windy City, he more than once sings the praises of the metropolis’ winning wieners. Alright, Jim… Devoid of the menace needed is the chief antagonist, the tattooed and murderous Mauricio, whose haphazard murders just feel obligatory, and misguided rather than menacing. When your “thriller’s” threat is about as terrifying as an extra on a crime drama, you’ve got problems.
It’s one thing for The Marksman to be a routine “romp,” but in its depiction of gun violence and the relationship Americans enjoy with their southern neighbors director Robert Lorenz’s film is entirely tone-deaf. The problematic nature of Jim, an armed white guy, swooping in as a sort of civilian border patrolman is in itself a question worth raising, but one could argue the happenstance geography of his livelihood simply puts him in the vicinity of those attempting to cross the border into the US. Fine. What isn’t entirely fine is the way in which The Marksman depicts the average civilian relationship with firearms.
In a country that is drowning in the blood and bullets of gun violence, The Marksman not only depicts a retail transaction in which Jim purchases guns without a proper background check (and we’re meant to find it a tender moment between this old veteran and the sales clerk, who relays his own connection to the service), but a scene of “sweet” bonding between Jim and Miguel wherein the former teaches the latter how to properly fire a handgun. Miguel is probably around 10 years old?
Look, I understand that a movie is a movie; The Marksman is a work of fiction meant to entertain first. However, it is the responsibility of all good entertainment to enlighten, even a little. Fail to do that and we’re in the territory of bad or mediocre entertainment, and, if things weren’t clear enough, The Marksman is already treading those waters. The casual nature with which we’re supposed to go along with a child being taught to fire a gun is, in 2021, simply no bueno. The Marksman postures itself after the likes of ultra-grim Sicario but in no way deals with the repercussions of such traumatic violence or loosey-goosey regulation.
That The Marksman is a soft-edged action thriller is an unfortunate but common result of Hollywood’s genre film productions. Perhaps it was never destined for the halls of the greats, but surely a tight action scene here and some inspired characterization there and we could have a decent time at the movies? But where the film really fails is in its total shrugging off of any meaningful connection to our world at present, playing along in its own boring game of American exceptionalism and rough-and-tumble machismo while the reality it ignores is changing. Rather, needs changing, to reflect the ideals of the real people who deal with the real things The Marksman only pretends to tackle. It’s boring, and it feels like the characters themselves are bored. Go enjoy a hot dog instead.