Kernel Rating: 1.5 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 108 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 14+. This thriller stars Liam Neeson as a retired U.S. Marine and Vietnam War veteran who lives on the U.S./Mexico border, and vows to keep a young Mexican boy safe after his family is killed by the cartel. Lots of gun violence, including many shootouts and characters who are killed by gunfire; a dog is also shot offscreen; someone is strangled; implied torture, including a character who is hung by a chain and then showed bruised and bloodied. Characters threaten each other, and immigrants are described in disparaging terms. Some cursing, including one use of the f-word, and a child is trained on how to use a gun.
By Roxana Hadadi
Liam Neeson’s late-career action-hero resurgence continues in “The Marksman,” a deeply generic thriller that makes you wish Neeson would devote his energies to something other than yet another spin on “Taken.” This time, Neeson’s character Jim Hanson is a retired U.S. Marine turned rancher who uses his experience from years in the Vietnam War to patrol the border with Mexico. He doesn’t respect fence jumpers until he meets a young Mexican boy who changes his mind, and director Robert Lorenz loads “The Marksman” with as many cliches as possible once it gets going.
“The Marksman” begins in Mexico, where we’re immediately introduced to the threat of cartel violence by men in a pickup truck, toting guns and wearing bandanas, driving around a dusty town. Eleven-year-old Miguel (Jacob Perez) and his mother Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) are used to the danger, but when Rosa’s brother is targeted by the cartel, she and Miguel decide to flee the country. After paying a coyote, traveling through Mexico (a theoretically harrowing journey that the film entirely skips over), and crawling through a hole in the border fence and arriving in Arizona, Rosa and Miguel literally run into rancher Jim Hanson (Neeson).
Hanson doesn’t approve of who he calls IAs, or “illegal aliens,” but something about Rosa’s desperation and Miguel’s youth stops him in his tracks. And when the cartel members immediately catch up with the pair and try to intimidate Hanson into handing them over, he won’t budge. He was a soldier once, someone who was supposed to protect the innocent and weak, and he can’t hand abandon a woman and child, knowing that they would be murdered. Instead, he decides to protect them, especially after Rosa dies in the ensuing shoot-out. If Jim can get Miguel to Chicago, where the rest of his family is, that would be a dignified act for a man whose life, after his wife’s death the preceding year, has seemed aimless.
So Jim and Miguel set off together, and “The Marksman” indulges in some buddy-comedy scenarios you can see coming from a mile away, interrupting its many scenes of gun violence with instances in which Jim goads Miguel into eating a burger and admitting that it’s tasty, or one in which Jim realizes that Miguel has been able to speak English this whole time, or another where Jim tries to buy an atlas at the convenience store and the teenage clerk doesn’t know what a map is. All of those scenarios allow Jim to remain the figure of authority and unassailability in “The Marksman,” and the result is that no other characters—including Miguel, who inspires in Jim such a change in attitude—are barely developed at all.
“You damn well appreciate what I’m doing for you,” Jim says to Miguel, but “The Marksman” doesn’t bother building their bond. Scenes that should be meaningful, like Jim taking Miguel to a church to mourn his mother, don’t have the impact they need because the film doesn’t take the time to build the characters equally. The only time they really communicate with each other is during a scene in which Jim teaches Miguel how to handle and shoot a gun, and there is something off-putting about how “The Marksman” uses cycles of violence to try and secure our sympathy. And the film’s refusal to engage in any kind of politics outside of “Wow, Mexico is dangerous” also feels like narrative cowardice. When Jim says of the border, “It would be fine if the government would get its s— together and figure that mess out,” it’s a statement that actually says nothing about anything. “Figure that mess out” how? By doing what? The film sidestepping these questions might spark a conversation with teen viewers about their thoughts on immigration, the drug war, and the current situation at the U.S./Mexico border, but “The Marksman” offers up very few opinions of its own.
The only solution “The Marksman” seems to have for any kind of problem is by shooting a gun at it, but even with that in mind, there is little finesse to the action scenes in “The Marksman” or any creativity to their staging. Perez does fine in the role and is particularly affecting in that church scene, while Neeson is more ragged throughout, with a shoddy accent and an overall by-the-book performance. Maybe he’s getting tired of his own schtick, too: You couldn’t get much less exciting or interesting than “The Marksman.”
“The Marksman” is playing in theaters as of January 15, 2021.