Since 2008’s “Taken,” the “Liam Neeson thriller” has become a subgenre unto itself. Aggrieved fatherly types, Neeson’s characters must turn to violence against assorted bad guys in various locales. At this point, one could list them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired format: Liam Neeson on a plane, Liam Neeson on a train, Liam Neeson in the snow, oh, the places he’ll go (to shoot bad guys).
“The Marksman,” co-written and directed by Robert Lorenz, is Liam Neeson on a ranch. The widowed Jim Hanson (Neeson) spends his days minding a few cattle and calling in reports to the border patrol from his Arizona property, which is about to be auctioned off by the bank. When a Mexican woman and her son cross the border fence in front of his truck, it sets off a chain of events that changes Jim’s life, as he attempts to protect the boy from a vengeful Mexican drug cartel.
For a film titled “The Marksman,” the actual marksmanship is not necessarily the focal point of the story. Jim is a whiskey-swilling Silver Star Marine Corps Vietnam vet who only pulls out his rifle when absolutely necessary. It does, in fact, become necessary when he takes young Miguel (Jacob Perez) on the road to Chicago, in hopes of delivering him to family, per the dying wish of Miguel’s mother, who perishes in a firefight with the cartel. Jim’s also intrigued by a satchel of stolen cash, which he thinks could save his ranch. But he’s going to need his shooting skills if he and Miguel are going to outrun the cartel leaders in hot pursuit.
The plot is a standard issue chase movie, as Jim and Miguel make their way north from Arizona with the vengeful Maurico (Juan Pablo Raba) on their tail, as well as Jim’s stepdaughter, Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), a border patrol officer, begging him to return the boy and seek protection from the authorities. Along the way, man and child bond, forging a relationship beyond the task at hand.
Shot with a shiny sheen that’s almost too crystalline, there isn’t much to set “The Marksman” apart from Neeson’s other thrillers. In fact, it’s one of the blandest of the bunch. It lacks the lean, zippy action and twisty plots of his collaborations with Jaume Collet-Serra (“Non-Stop,” “Run All Night,” “The Commuter”), the darkly comic tone of Hans Petter Molland’s “Cold Pursuit,” and the brutality of the “Taken” trilogy. This is a minor entry in the Neeson canon.
Its politics are muddled at best, relying on a tired stereotype of Mexican drug cartels to serve as an uncomplicated boogeyman, while a patriotic Vietnam vet traffics an asylum-seeking Mexican child across state lines. The film wants to speak to some kind of old school, lone-ranger American hero type (as portrayed by a man from Northern Ireland), but it’s too vague, shying away from any controversy, to say much at all.
Neeson remains eminently watchable, and as this tragic figure, a man who finds himself alone on the range after all these years, he conveys the sorrow Jim carries with a palpable immediacy. Although “The Marksman” never finds its target (if it has one), Neeson’s still got it.