Review: ‘The Marksman’ (2021), starring Liam Neeson

January 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Liam Neeson and Jacob Perez in director “The Marksman” (Photo by Ryan Sweeney/Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“The Marksman” (2021)

Directed by Robert Lorenz

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States (especially the Southwest) and briefly in Mexico, the action flick “The Marksman” features a racially diverse cast of white people and Latinos, with a few African Americans and Asians.

Culture Clash: A former Marine-turned-rancher, who lives in Arizona, helps an orphaned boy, who’s an undocumented Mexican immigrant, as they try to hide from drug cartel gangsters who want to kill the boy.

Culture Audience: “The Marksman” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Liam Neeson and to viewers who like violent and cliché chase movies.

Liam Neeson in “The Marksman” (Photo by Ryan Sweeney/Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

By now, Liam Neeson has made so many mediocre-to-bad action schlockfests that he could do them in his sleep. Audiences can also predict in their sleep what’s going to happen in these movies. Does Neeson play a loner who’s got something to prove? Is he an anti-hero who breaks the law as a means to an end? Is there a formulaic and sometimes nonsensical plot amid all the chase scenes, fist fights and gun shootouts? The answer is “yes” to all of these questions. “The Marksman” falls right in line in Neeson’s long list of these types of forgettable flicks.

Directed with little imagination by Robert Lorenz (who co-wrote the derivative screenplay with Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz), “The Marksman” tries and fails to be more socially relevant than the average action movie. “The Marksman” throws in the hot-button issues of undocumented Mexican immigrants and Mexican drug cartels, who have been used in divisive political debates on how the United States should or should not change immigration laws. The movie panders to the worst negative stereotypes of Mexicans who cross over into the U.S. border. And the film pushes another “white savior” narrative that makes a crusading white person as the only person in the story who has the conscience and the courage to do the “rescuing” of someone who isn’t white.

In “The Marksman,” Neeson portrays Jim Hanson, a former Marine who is now a rancher in Naco, Arizona. Neeson keeps his native Irish accent in the movie, so it’s clear to viewers that Jim is an Irish immigrant. Jim sometimes tries to talk like an American cowboy, but it doesn’t sound believable, partly because much of this movie’s screenplay has badly written dialogue.

Jim is a grouchy and sad widower who lives alone, and his life isn’t going so well. In addition to grieving over his wife (who died of cancer), he’s also having major financial problems because his ranch is on the brink of going into foreclosure. Jim gets a visit from a bank official (played by Alex Knight), who tells Jim that he has 90 days to come up with the back payments, or else the bank will take ownership of the property. And it looks like Jim could very well lose his ranch, because when he tries to come up with ways to earn more money, all of his attempts fail.

Jim’s only real companion is his Border Collie mix dog named Jackson. Jim also has an adult stepdaughter named Sarah (played by Katheryn Winnick), who works as a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Jim has been hiding his financial problems from Sarah. But after the visit from the bank official, Jim meets up with Sarah at a bar, where he tries to drown his sorrows in drinking alcohol, and he confesses to her about being close to losing the ranch and feeling very scared about his uncertain future. Sarah is sympathetic and comforting. She drives Jim home because he’s too drunk to drive.

Meanwhile, the beginning of the movie shows the Mexican boy who will unexpectedly come into Jim’s life. His name is Miguel (played by Jacob Perez), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Miguel lives in Mexico with his widowed mother Rosa (played by Teresa Ruiz) in a modest house. Miguel is shown going to another house to look for an older girl named Lola, whom he has a crush on, but Lola’s brother (played by Harry Maldonado) tells Miguel to leave immediately because Lola is too old for him.

Rosa and Miguel don’t have an entirely squeaky-clean life. Miguel’s uncle Carlos (played by Alfredo Quiroz) helps look after him, but Carlos is a member of a drug cartel. Carlos has stolen a lot of cash from the cartel, so he’s captured and tortured by some of the gang members. The cartel’s boss is named Angel (who’s never seen or heard in this movie), but he has a goon named Mauricio Carrero (played by Juan Pablo Raba) as one of the chief henchman tasked with “making an example” out of Carlos.

Before Carlos is caught by the other cartel thugs, he makes a frantic phone call to Rosa and tells her that she and Miguel must leave the house immediately because people will be looking for them and will want to kill them. Rosa takes a travel bag full of cash (which is presumably the stolen cash) and follows Carlos’ orders. She and Miguel barely manage to escape from the house before Mauricio and his cronies show up. The gangsters have tracked Rosa down because they took Carlos’ phone and saw her number in the phone.

Rosa has enlisted the help of a guide to take her and Miguel to the U.S. border. But shortly before they get to the border, the guide changes his mind when he sees that they’re being followed in a Chevrolet Suburban SUV, and he figures out that Rosa is running away from gang members. He tells Rosa and Miguel that they’re now on their own. He advises them to find the part of the border’s wire fence that can be loosened so that they can cross over.

With Mauricio and his thugs (he has two with him, including his brother) quickly catching up, Rosa and Miguel frantically race to the fence and find the part of the fence that they can go through to get to the U.S. border. However, one of Rosa’s legs accidentally gets cut on the fence wire. Miguel is running ahead of her into the middle of a road, where he almost gets hit by a beat-up Chevy truck. Who’s driving the truck? Jim, of course.

Jim knows immediately that the woman and boy he’s encountered have entered the U.S. border illegally, so he calls the U.S. Border Patrol to report them. His plan is to hold them until the Border Patrol agents can arrive and take over. But then, Mauricio and his thugs show up and demand that Jim (who has a gun) hand over Rosa and Mauricio. Jim refuses by saying, “Sorry, Pancho, these illegals are mine. I suggest you just turn around and say ‘adios’.”

This leads to a shootout and chase scene that includes Mauricio hopping on the truck and trying to get Jim to run off the road. However, Mauricio is thrown off of the truck. And in the end, Mauricio’s brother and Rosa end up dying from gunshot wounds. Mauricio leaves in defeat with his remaining cohort. But, of course, Mauricio will be back for revenge.

The Border Patrol agents take Miguel to the nearest detention center, and they plan to deport him back to Mexico, since they were able to track down some relatives who are willing to take custody of Miguel. As Jim is driving away, he notices that Rosa left behind a bag full of cash in his truck, along with a slip of paper that has a street address in Chicago. There’s no name with this address, but Jim immediately figures out that Rosa intended to flee with Miguel to this address.

Jim suddenly has a change of heart and decides that he’s going to take Miguel to this address. He calls his stepdaughter Sarah, finds out that Miguel is going to be deported, and Jim asks her if there’s anything she can do to stop it. She firmly says no and tells him it would be against the law for anyone to stop the deportation.

But that doesn’t prevent Jim from showing up at the Border Patrol detention center, pretending that Sarah gave her permission for Jim to visit Miguel, and talking his way into the room where Miguel is being held. Jim has been told that Miguel blames Jim for his mother’s death, but somehow Miguel doesn’t show much hesitation in trusting Jim when Jim tells Miguel to leave with him.

Jim and Miguel sneak out of the detention center. Is it kidnapping or is it doing the right thing? Jim thinks it’s the latter. And that’s when they go on the road trip that takes up the rest of the movie.

At first, Jim thinks Miguel doesn’t speak English, so there are some tense moments where he tries to communicate with a sullen Miguel. But then, lo and behold, Miguel reveals that he can speak and understand English perfectly. A very ignorant Jim is surprised to find out that Miguel learned English in school. It’s as if Jim thinks Mexico is a backwards country where the only language that’s taught in school is Spanish.

“The Marksman” has some very ludicrous plot holes to explain what happens next in the story. Mauricio and three of his thugs have crossed the U.S. border (by bribing a border patrol agent) and have been staking out the Border Patrol detention center to find out what happens to Miguel. It’s actually pretty dumb that they’re sitting in their car and hanging out conspicuously in a parking lot where they could be easily caught by Border Patrol agents.

Because of this stakeout, Mauricio and his thugs happen to see the exact moment when Jim and Miguel drive away in Jim’s truck. They follow Jim to his remote ranch. (Jim doesn’t notice that he’s being followed, even though he should be paranoid about being caught for kidnapping.) Jim and Miguel have left the ranch and have started their road trip by the time the thugs show up at the ranch. Mauricio and his cronies snoop around the house, and that’s how the gangsters find out personal information about Jim.

Mauricio uses his connections with computer hackers to track Jim’s movements, based on Jim’s credit card activity. Later in the story, Mauricio enlists the help of some other criminals during this cat-and-mouse game that takes place in various U.S. states, including Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Arkansas. (The movie was actually filmed in Ohio and New Mexico.) These other criminals are just bit players, because for the most part, the gang doing the actual chasing consists of just four thugs (Mauricio and his cronies) who are in a SUV to track down Jim and Miguel.

“The Marksman” is one of those dumb action flicks where during a big showdown with guns or other weapons, people stand around talking to their targets, instead of using the weapons immediately on their targets. There are some “close calls” where Jim and Mauricio could have been easily killed immediately in real life. But since this is a fictional movie, that type of realism would cut the story too short, so the plot is dragged out in very unimaginative ways.

There’s almost no suspense in “The Marksman” because it plays out exactly how most people expect it to play out. The violence is utterly predictable. Perez’s portrayal of Miguel is adequate (the character doesn’t do much talking), while Neeson is clearly just going through the motions and brings nothing unique or charming to this role. Raba’s Mauricio character is very generic, while the other criminals in the movie have no discernable personalities.

There are moments when Jim starts to doubt his decision to “rescue” Miguel. And there’s a brief interlude where Jim and Miguel express very different views on religion: Miguel is religious and believes in heaven, while Jim is a staunch atheist. This difference in opinion leads to a scene where Jim shows he does have a heart underneath his gruff exterior. But that’s the closest thing to “emotional depth” that this banal movie has.

“The Marksman” isn’t a relentlessly horrible film. It’s just a very lazy film because it does nothing for the genre of action-oriented Westerns. Some viewers might be offended by how the movie depicts Mexican men. The only people who might like this movie are those who can’t get enough of Neeson recycling his same “defiant loner” persona in yet another stale action flick.

Open Road Films and Briarcliff Entertainment released “The Marksman” in U.S. cinemas on January 15, 2021.