Liam Neeson shoots bad guys, charms audience in the middlebrow ‘The Marksman’

Michael O’Sullivan

THE WASHINGTON POST – In The Marksman, Liam Neeson plays Jim, a recently widowed Arizona cattle rancher, former Marine and recovering alcoholic whose home (above which flies a large American flag) is about to be foreclosed.

Jim spends his days patrolling his land on the Mexican border in a mud-caked pickup, accompanied by his beloved dog Jackson, his rifle – which, true to the title, he really knows how to handle – and a walkie-talkie, which he uses to communicate with the “BP” (Border Patrol) about any “IAs” (“illegal aliens”) he might spot. When he comes across a Mexican woman and her young son (Teresa Ruiz and Jacob Perez) fleeing a group of cartel assassins, Jim does what anyone would do.

Or, rather, he does what “Liam Neeson” would do, meaning he does what the stock character the actor so often plays – a gruff/grieving, sometimes flawed/tortured man-of-action with a particular set of lethal skills and a heart of gold – would do. Jim steps in to protect the fugitives and, when the mother is killed, along with the brother of the cartel hit man Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba), our hero drops everything to deliver the boy, Miguel, to relatives in Chicago.

They’re pursued all the way by Mauricio, who wants the backpack full of cash that the dead woman was carrying, and which she had bequeathed to Jim with her dying breath: It’s drug money stolen by her brother.

Liam Neeson, left, and Jacob Perez in ‘The Marksman’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Oh sure, there’s a bit of hesitation at first. But Jim’s initial inclination to turn Miguel into the authorities evaporates more quickly than rain on a hot, flat rock when he discovers that law enforcement is not going to be able to protect Miguel – that some of them may, in fact, be in cahoots with the cartel.

In short, Jim turns into that character that we have come to know and love from Neeson’s recent filmography: the solitary hero who alone can save a helpless victim from the bad guys. And The Marksman proves itself to be the cinematic version of comfort food: satisfyingly familiar but full of starch and empty calories.

To its credit, the movie falls short of becoming a bloodbath, and, while just violent enough to satisfy the average fan of this particular niche of filmdom, the movie spends as much time developing the relationship between Jim and Miguel as it does on confrontation. During a brief sojourn in a motel where Jim and Miguel are staying, the film Hang ‘Em High is playing on the television, reminding viewers, unnecessarily, of what kind of film were watching: Western (check); vigilante justice (check).

And yet that scene on the TV isn’t a shootout, but one in which Clint Eastwood is eating a hard-boiled egg with Inger Stevens at a picnic. That’s more in line with the mushier tone of The Marksman, which might disappoint the most hardcore fans of Neeson’s action résumé.

Does that mean the 68-year-old actor is slowing down? Not really. There’s a scene in which Jim – a man in a hurry – tries to restock his arms at a gun shop, only to balk when the owner tells him he’ll have to wait while a background check is performed. Jim looks the guy in the eye, harnessing that “Liam Neeson” magic and, with little more than a twinkle and some baloney, convinces him to let him walk out with the guns, no questions asked.

Maybe here’s the question to ask yourself, in determining whether this movie is for you: Wouldn’t you do the same?