As surely as the ball drops in Times Square, the beginning of every new year always yields a new movie in which Liam Neeson is armed and wronged, which brings us to 2021 and “The Marksman.”
Granted, Neeson’s reign as an action hero of a certain age has yielded at least one genuinely worthwhile film (“The Grey”) alongside some delightfully trashy collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop,” “Run All Night,” “The Commuter”). “The Marksman,” alas, plods along without any sense of vitality or absurdity; director and co-writer Robert Lorenz (“Trouble With the Curve”) has spent much of his career working almost exclusively with Clint Eastwood, so it’s not a stretch to surmise that this vehicle was crafted to follow in the well-worn path of “Gran Torino” and “The Mule.”
Neeson certainly brings more warmth and empathy to the character, but the film itself plays like an amalgam of action-movie clichés (drink every time someone says “the cartel”), with some too-little, too-late attempts to flesh out two-dimensional bad guy Mauricio, who at least gets to be an intimidating physical presence thanks to actor Juan Pablo Raba (“Peppermint”).
When young Miguel (Jacob Perez) and his mother Rosa (Teresa Ruiz, “Narcos: Mexico”) have to flee Mexico because Rosa’s brother has stolen money from the cartel (glug), they cross the Arizona border into the soon-to-be-foreclosed land of cattle rancher Jim (Neeson). (This is one of those movies where everyone else pretends not to notice the Irish accent of Vietnam-vet Jim, in the same way that supporting characters took in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Austrian-inflected English at face value.)
Jim keeps a walkie-talkie handy to report such interlopers to the border patrol, although as we see early on, he’s also compassionate enough to provide water to an older refugee who’s been left behind by his guide. In the case of Rosa and Miguel, she pleads with him not to turn them in because they’re on the run, and no sooner has he contacted the authorities than Mauricio and his henchmen pull up with malicious intent. Jim’s titular skills come into play, but before the bad guys retreat, they’ve managed to shoot Rosa, who makes Jim promise to take Miguel to relatives in Chicago.
To do so, Jim will have to spring the boy from a detention facility — which this movie presents as an astonishingly easy act — and then take his recalcitrant charge cross-country in his now literally banged-up pickup truck, all while avoiding not only Maurico and company but also the local lawmen along the way who are clearly in the pocket of the cartel. (Cheers.)
This is the sort of by-the-numbers storytelling that lives or dies by the details, but Lorenz doesn’t do much to jazz up this generic tale. It certainly doesn’t help that the plotting is sometimes downright absurd: We’re meant to believe one guy with binoculars standing on an overpass could pick Jim’s truck out of all the incoming traffic to Chicago, and we’re simultaneously supposed to think that Jim could identify the guy who sees him.
“The Marksman” is also yet another movie where all of the Mexican characters are either long-suffering women and children or homicidal men working for the cartel. (You need a refill.) The movie tries to give Mauricio a backstory involving daddy issues and a battle for young Miguel’s soul that gets shoehorned into the last 10 minutes, and there’s even an attempted reference to “The Searchers” that this movie absolutely does not earn in the slightest.
Technically speaking, cinematographer Mark Patten (TV’s “Pennyworth”) and editor Luis Carballar (“Amores Perros”) deliver competent work that never threatens to color outside the lines, while composer Sean Callery’s often generic score occasionally sounds like Vangelis run through an Aaron Copland filter.
Neeson has certainly starred in worse action vehicles than “The Marksman,” but rarely have they been more forgettable.
“The Marksman” opens theatrically January 15.