“THE MARKSMAN”

Published On January 14, 2021 | By Matt Neufeld | FILM REVIEWS

“THE MARKSMAN”
​Starring Liam Neeson, Jacob Perez, Katheryn Winnick, Juan Pablo Raba, Teresa Ruiz
Written by Robert Lorenz, Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz
Director by Robert Lorenz
Produced by Tai Duncan, Mark Williams, Eric Gold and Robert Lorenz
Cinematography by Mark Patten
Edited by Luis Carballar
Music by Sean Callery

“The Marksman,” a drama-action-adventure film about a weary, exasperated, depressed and broke Arizona rancher and military veteran who unexpectedly finds a new meaning in life that gives him a new purpose, is a movie that somehow manages to succeed, just barely, despite its obvious cliches, flaws and over-reliance on unnecessary action sequences. What lifts up “The Marksman” is its basic plot premise and story dynamic–albeit cliched–of pairing an adult and a kid on the run, on the road, striving to survive under difficult circumstances, while concurrently coming to understand each other just a little bit better while also coming to learn a bit about each other and themselves. This story and plot device may be over-used–this is the third time this basic story element has been used in big-budget Hollywood films in just the past two months–but, when delivered correctly, with the right amount of heart, caring, sympathy and chemistry among the lead actors, this can work, and the resulting emotions and depths of understanding evoked from the leads can find their way right into the viewer’s heart.

And this story device does work in “The Marksman,” thanks to some solid, appropriately understated performances from Liam Neeson as the adult, the rancher and war vet Jim Hanson, and young Jacob Perez as the kid, Miguel. There’s a nice, even sweet and kind-hearted, chemistry that develops between the characters of Hanson and Miguel. Yes, you can see many of the plot points coming several acres away, and you could make some educated guesses about where some of the story could be going, but, hey, if viewers just sit back and enjoy watching Neeson’s grizzled Hanson slowly, eventually evolve out of his lonely, solitary, alcohol-infused, depression-enveloped funk of a life to something a little more hardened, serious and meaningful–and heartfelt–while striving to save young Miguel’s life and get him out of danger to a safe place, and enjoy seeing this guy and this kid come to rely on each other to survive, and, why not, indulge in a few carefully-placed and carefully-timed action sequences, “The Marksman” subsequently hits its target and succeeds as an enjoyable, watchable diversion that delivers equal parts drama and action, tension and suspense, and even manages to make a few important points and messages about some major subjects, including immigration, drug cartels, the illegal drug trade, violence, the importance of family, and even just plain doing the right thing, no matter the consequences.

The film starts with Hanson living that solitary, depressed life on his ramshackle, run-down, dusty ranch on the Arizona-Mexico border, with a dwindling bank account, little incoming income, little support from friends and neighbors, and an abrupt, life-altering notice of foreclosure on his land. Amid all of this, Hanson also acts as a type of part-time border guard, communicating in to local authorities the illegal border crossings that he regularly witnesses. However, one day a particular border crossing goes horribly bad, as a young mother and Miguel desperately make a run for it, on the close run from literally murderous thugs from a particularly horrendous and violent, and despicably unsympathetic and unforgiving, Mexican drug cartel. It seems Miguel’s uncle was in trouble with the cartel, and just before the uncle is hunted down and killed, he manages to warn Rosa, Miguel’s mom, and Miguel to cross the border to America and find their way to safety with relatives in a very distant Chicago to escape the cartel. Soon, though, Rosa and Miguel are tracked down by the cartel thugs, Rosa is killed (this is not a spoiler), and that sets up the eventual pairing of Jim and Miguel–and Jim’s life-affirming, dedicated mission to get Miguel safely to Chicago before the young boy, who seems to be about 8 or 9 in the movie, is mercilessly killed by the cartel goons.

Hanson is able to cleverly get Miguel out of danger from the cartel criminals at the border, but Miguel is soon in the shaky custody of border agents at a processing station. The goons’ cartel seems to have corrupt governmental connections from Mexico throughout Arizona, with on-the-take, bribable border guards and local law enforcement officers–this plot point takes a major suspension of disbelief on the level of going along with the over-the-top corruption often displayed in action-adventure thrillers–and Jim realizes that Miguel is not safe in Arizona–even while in the protection of the local border patrol office. Jim–as can only be done in action-adventure films–manages to sneak Miguel out from the custody of the local law enforcement, and the two renegades and fugitives head off down the road, with the cartel killers, border agents and local law enforcement officers hot on their tail.

This set-up, which is cliched and familiar, as already noted, could explode filmically into horrendous familiarity and predictability on a bad level, but, again, credit the filmmakers for keeping things watchable and even enjoyable. Screenwriters Robert Lorenz, who also directed the movie, and Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz are smart enough to balance the drama–most of which is that developing relationship between Jim and Miguel–and the action so neither element weighs down the other. Think about “Witness,” “The Professional” and “A Perfect World” and you’ll get a general idea about how “The Marksman” mimics those movies’ similar balance of drama, action, tension and suspense–and adult-kid bonding. Director Lorenz smartly keeps the violence decidedly un-bloody, un-gory and non-stomach-churning, which keeps the movie watchable. Fortunately, most of the violence is suggested and even occurs off-camera–again, a smart decision. And Lorenz, Charles Kravitz craft Jim’s heroic action stances as moves that have to be made in regards to the overriding heroic and gallant mission–to keep Miguel alive and deliver him safely to his relatives. It’s difficult to question Jim’s actions when all he’s trying to do is save this likeable, innocent kid.

And Jacob Perez is to be praised for keeping Miguel likeable. Miguel is essentially a quiet, very soft-spoken, innocent kid just like any other kid–except for the fact that his father, mother and uncle have all been murdered by an evil Mexican drug cartel. However, Miguel knows what’s up–he knows what his family members have done, he knows the underworld, threatening power of the cartels, and he knows just how bad things are. He’s a kid with a heart, and he’s increasingly likeable, even lovable, as the movie moves forward. The screenwriters also make sure to make Miguel likeable, but not overly-sentimental or too-cute likeable. He’s simply a kid caught up in some tragic circumstances–but he’s still a kid. The writers give Miguel some time amid their run to safety for Miguel to be a kid–wanting some candy, cutely (but not overly cutely) walking Jim’s dog, and even watching a scene from an old Clint Eastwood movie while he and Jim hide out in a roadside motel room. Miguel is just a kid, and more movies need to follow this lead and just keep their kids real kids–not some overly-precocious, over-acting little adults. It’s always better on screen if kids are just…kids. That’s because normal, regular kids are just likeable and lovable enough as they are–writers don’t need to embellish or exaggerate kids’ cuteness and likeability. Movies and television shows and plays always succeed when the smarter writers discover that window into Kids World, and present kids as they truly are–funny, wide-eyed, innocent, yet also full of spunk and energy and childlike deviousness. Miguel isn’t particularly spunky, overly-energetic or devious, but he is presented in the movie as a pretty regular kid–albeit one with cinematic presence and charm–and that is what makes his character work in “The Marksman.”

Jim, on the other hand, is a bit more complex and layered, and, yes, he’s also a character we’ve seen many times in many movies–perhaps, just perhaps, a character we’ve seen too many times in too many movies. The grizzled, crusty, grumpy, solitary loner, rancher, farmer, marksman and military vet who’s angry at the world, working against the world, and depressed to the point where he knows he literally doesn’t have much left to lose. Jim’s wife has died, he’s out of money, his ranch is failing–and he’s in danger of losing his land. All that’s left is one big life-saving mission–to take care of this innocent kid, save his life, and get him to safety. And, perhaps along the way, deftly wipe out some violent, nasty, unrepentant Mexican drug cartel killer assassins and corrupt accomplices! Well, that last part is where the suspension of disbelief comes in, but that last part also accounts for the action, adventure, tension and suspense that keeps the movie moving, watchable, and, yes, enjoyable.

When adults with nothing left to lose and innocent kids are paired on the road and on the run, and they have to learn to survive with each other and learn about each other, some poignant, touching moments have to occur, they have to be timed and paced–and acted–with precision, and they have to have some underlying meaning to give these scenes some heft and depth. Several moments on the road between Jim and Miguel accomplish these goals. It’s not a spoiler to note two of these scenes in particular–they’ll still be enjoyable while watching the movie–and it’s little moments like these that can, again, provide some deeper meaning. At one point, Jim and Miguel are in a store, and Jim’s buying Miguel some new clothes and some food, and he wisely catches Miguel instinctively, longingly looking over at a rack filled with one of his favorite candies, those squishy, gelatin-like, fruit-flavored Gummy Bear things that seem to linger forever in your mouths–the modern-day descendants of Baby Boomer-era Jujyfruits, which are indeed the king of these types of candies. Miguel is the quiet, nice, softspoken type of kid, and he doesn’t say anything. But Jim is wise–and caring enough–to observe that this kid just wants some Gummy Bears. So Jim buys Miguel a bag of Gummy Bears. When he gives them to Miguel, the look on Miguel’s face–pure kid appreciation and happiness–is priceless. That’s a simple, but evocative, window into Kids World.

In another, similar scene that also revolves around food, at one point on their road trip, Jim falls asleep in his truck. Miguel sneaks off to walk Jim’s dog–and buy some Pop Tarts. At first, Jim scowls at the Pop Tart choice, and, in parent mode, suggest that Miguel needs to eat some better food. However, a little while later, still on the run, but in a different circumstance, Jim and Miguel are sitting around. Jim, on the road to understanding Miguel and perhaps kids in general, takes a hesitant bite of a Pop Tart–and genuinely likes it. He gives a smiling look over at Miguel, who’s watching this older guy eating a Pop Tart with kidlike fascination and humor. “Hey–not too bad!” Jim says, genuinely, to Miguel, with a smile. They share a smile and a laugh. It’s a small, poignant bonding moment, and, yes, it could come straight out of a thousand other movies–but it’s beautiful in its simplicity, and it works. The scene is another window into Kids World.

Sometimes, all of us–kids or adults–just need to sit back, forget all of the crap going on in the world–and enjoy some Gummy Bars, Jujyfruits and Pop Tarts.

Yet there’s a bigger meaning to moments and scenes like this amid a movie that is a drama, yes, but also an action-adventure thriller: These scenes show some heart and some soul and some understanding. And, to be honest, most action-adventure thrillers could use a lot more heart, soul and understanding.

And for those who are wondering, in light of Liam Neeson’s late-career resurgence as a kick-ass, tough-guy action-adventure hero–Neeson, at 67 during filming, holds his own, as they say, and holds up well, and, well, he kicks some ass in “The Marksman.” And that’s saying something–again, Neeson was 67 years old during the filming of “The Marksman.” And it’s always gratifying, on many levels, to see a lean, mean fighting machine macho hero kicking butt and taking charge at 67. Good for Liam Neeson, and good for the filmmakers for showcasing the simple message that age is but a number, and anyone at any age, if they’re in good enough shape, can battle bad guys, defeat the bad guys, succeed at being a hero and a good guy, and help save and rescue the other good guys. Why not? If Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and other action-adventure heroes of a certain age can still believably get off the couch, get out the door, get off the lawn and kick some major bad-guy butt–good for them! There’s a message there not to generalize and stereotype men or women because of age, and to let some older guys show they can still get the damn job done.

Meanwhile, there are those other messages apparent in “The Marksman,” too. The movie doesn’t deeply intellectualize on a deep, academic level the socio-political-societal-cultural-crime aspects presented in the story, but at least the film tells people in a pretty straightforward manner we still have lingering Mexican drug cartel, violence and governmental corruption problems, and we still have some serious, distressing, troubling economic, agricultural, farming, ranching and immigration problems in this country that need to be tackled–still.

Still, though, “The Marksman” keeps coming back to that basic dynamic of that deepening, evolving and important understanding that occurs between two lost souls–that grizzled, nothing-to-lose, heroic Jim Hanson, out to simply save an innocent little boy, and that boy himself, Miguel, a quiet, softspoken innocent little kid who Jim knows needs to be saved, no matter what happens. It’s smart, sweet, gratifying and satisfying to see these two people care for each other, look out for each other, and, eventually, on many levels, save each other. And in these troubling times, to watch two lost souls save each other so they’re not lost any more, that lifts the spirits and offers some hope. And if a movie can lift some spirits and offer some hope, then it’s worth watching.

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