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When Hollywood feels that it has struck gold with a particular premise, it’s not uncommon for the industry to open the floodgates for projects with similar approaches – but what’s not common is for three of those second wave releases to come out within a month of one another. And yet that’s exactly what has happened with Robert Lorenz’s The Marksman, George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, and Paul Greengrass’ News Of The World.
From an outside perspective, what seems to be the basic motivation for the greenlight of each of these projects is the success of the Star Wars Disney+ series The Mandalorian. In the show, Pedro Pascal stars as an intergalactic bounty hunter who finds himself a reluctant paternal figure for an innocent child who needs his help. If you regularly keep track of new releases, you’ll note that this is the exact same plot of all three of the movies mentioned above.
It’s weird that they’ve all come out within weeks of each other (especially when The Mandalorian Season 2 also finished its run last month), but also altogether not surprising – particularly when you consider the variance in quality. You’ve got the really good (News Of The World), the pretty bad (The Midnight Sky), and now the thoroughly average with The Marksman, which features Liam Neeson in the lead role and changes the broader circumstances to be about illegal immigration in modern America.
Unlike the other two previously-released features sharing the premise, The Marksman is not based on a book, but instead an original screenplay by Chris Charles, Danny Kravitz, and Robert Lorenz that centers its story on an Arizona rancher named Jim Hanson (Neeson). Living on the south side of the state, his property is partially bordered by the fence between the United States and Mexico, and as a result he regularly has run-ins with illegal immigrants. In most circumstances he is quick to call on his daughter-in-law, Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), who is a member of the U.S. Border Patrol, but circumstances change when he encounters a mother, Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), and her son, Miguel (Jacob Perez), desperately running away from a drug cartel.
When a showdown with “soldiers” across the border escalates, Jim is forced to utilize some of his U.S. Marine training with his rifle. The situation goes sideways when Rosa is shot and killed, but first the rancher promises that he will help get Miguel to relatives living in Chicago. His first move is to abscond his duty, calling on Sarah for her help, but when he realizes that the kid will be killed as soon as he goes back to Mexico Jim takes Miguel from processing and begins traveling east.
What Jim doesn’t realize is that the cartel is rich with resources to track them down, and while doing so they leave a trail of bodies in their wake.
If you’re looking for a new take on an old tale in The Marksman, look elsewhere.
Without getting detailed about what happens to avoid spoilers, The Marksman’s plot from there is basically just the same circumstances repeated multiple times for dramatic effect, and the exact character arcs that you expect: while the primary antagonist (played by Juan Pablo Raba) has exactly one note to play (a.k.a. kill at all costs), and Sarah is relegated to being the “woman on the phone,” the connection between Jim and Miguel goes from being hard-hearted to guardian-and-ward as they go on their life-or-death journey. It’s devoid of original story points, buttressed with tropes and stereotypes, but it does have a heart and some exciting action beats.
The power of Liam Neeson definitely means a lot to The Marksman.
Said heart is primarily beating in the chest of Liam Neeson, who does all of the heavy lifting in the film, but lifts effectively. The actor’s bottomless well of gravitas keeps The Marksman nourished as it unfolds, as his world-weariness and cynicism fades in the face of finding purpose and making a connection with another human being. Ham-fisted and obvious as it may be in the plotting, Neeson is able to sell it, and he keeps you both invested in the journey and believing in Jim’s evolution to the point where the stakes hold weight.
The Marksman’s action is solid, and mostly delivers what the title promises.
An over-dependence on the familiar is reminiscent of Robert Lorenz’s directorial debut, Trouble With The Curve (in that case it was baseball movie tropes), but one clear area of improvement is in the straight entertainment category. The Marksman doesn’t make Jim a superhero, even with its extremely firm establishment of his military background, and by extension the action is all grounded and intense. While not exactly epic and stylized, those expecting gunplay from the title will be satisfied by its sequences of exchanged fire (though it is worth noting that there isn’t any point in the film where his talents with a rifle are particularly highlighted, making the name just the smallest bit odd). Thirteen years after Taken and coming up on his seventh decade of life, Liam Neeson shows that he still has skills.
On that note, there is no question that Neeson is in good company among the other recent Reluctant Movie Paternal Figures (RMPFs for short), as few would scratch and claw out of a list that includes Tom Hanks, George Clooney, and Pedro Pascal, but The Marksman is the only case where it feels like the star is punching below their weight (The Midnight Sun is a worse movie, but at least Clooney also directed it). It doesn’t ask too much of the actor, but he does bring his all – and while that has the effect of elevating the project, it’s a bump that only brings it up to slightly-below-average.