Despite the action-movie theatrics of the latter part of his career, Liam Neeson has begun in recent years to age gracefully in his parts — so gracefully that he’s finally become Clint Eastwood. In The Marksman, the actor exudes the kind of weathered melancholy Eastwood adopted in his films from Unforgiven on. The director and co-writer, Robert Lorenz, is himself a longtime assistant director and producer for Eastwood; he also directed Trouble With the Curve, which starred Eastwood. Clint himself even makes a cameo appearance in The Marksman, via one of his older films showing on a motel room TV. And truth be told, it’s a lot easier to imagine Eastwood in this movie than it is Neeson, whose gangly awkwardness doesn’t quite fit the part of a grizzled Arizona rancher.
There’s also a small-c conservatism that runs through The Marksman that might have worked better with Clint. The film follows Neeson’s sad-sack rancher, Jim, a former Marine, as he tries to protect Miguel (Jacob Perez), a young undocumented Mexican boy who has fled across the border with his mother (Teresa Ruiz), on the run from a drug cartel. When he first sees mother and child scurrying onto his property, Jim stops them and calls the border police. He’s not lacking in compassion; he’s just following the law. But while they’re waiting for the cops to arrive, some cartel goons show up and kill the mother. The story turns on the guilt Jim feels over the incident: Sensing the corruption of the border police and realizing that Miguel will be in danger if he’s returned to Mexico, he grabs the kid and sets off in his truck to Chicago, where the child has family. The cartel soldiers pursue them, casually wreaking havoc and dropping bodies along the way.
It’s strictly good guys–versus–bad guys stuff: The villains are really, really awful, while Jim and Miguel are really, really decent. And as a bare-minimum action flick, The Marksman is mostly serviceable. But it’s also a road movie about an old man and a young child getting to know each other, and the interactions between Jim and Miguel — going from testy silence to warm camaraderie — might have had more oomph with someone tougher, more confident, more Clint-y, in the older man’s part. Neeson’s upturned eyebrows, anguished demeanor, and concave posture have always spoken of penance, or worry and hurt; that’s partly what gave such power to his reinvention as an action hero. But this also means that his character has a lot less emotional ground to cover over the course of the film, and the story of his guilt, and his growing rapport with Miguel, lacks drama; it all feels like a foregone conclusion, even within the mostly predictable framework of this action flick.
But the man has range, and I wish he’d get more chances to use it. This is Neeson’s third movie in less than a year, and I’ve spent a somewhat ridiculous amount of time thinking about his career of late. He’s at an interesting point, to be sure: a bit too old to be kicking constant ass, but still pigeonholed into the lucrative genre films that revived his fortunes a decade or so ago. Older actors — both male and female — always have to find new ways to be relevant, and very few of them actually succeed in doing so. Neeson was always an accomplished performer, and at their best, his action movies have employed his talents more than his skills (think The Grey, or even Run All Night). But this stuff can only go so far, and I’m curious to see what he does next. Based on the evidence, however, he himself might not be all that sure. The Marksman feels like a placeholder for the next act of Liam Neeson’s career. It’s a film about an aging man who doesn’t know what comes next, starring an aging man who doesn’t know what comes next.
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