The most remarkable thing about The Marksman is how actively it insists on not setting itself apart. Almost willfully mediocre, Robert Lorenz’s neo-western features a greyed and leathery Liam Neeson in a role surprisingly grounded for his annual Q1 dad bait. Without a special set of skills or burning revenge to drive him, he slumps along as Jim, an Arizona rancher and Vietnam vet who finds himself widowed with a failing piece of property on the border. With naught but a loyal pup and his Border Patrol stepdaughter (Katheryn Winnick), Jim is caught between the bank and a hard place––until spotting Rosa and Miguel (Teresa Ruiz and Jacob Perez), a mother and son in flight from the cartels as they breach the border fence with a satchel of money in tow. After a bit of gunplay with some tragic consequences, Jim endeavors to take Miguel (and the money) to a relative in Chicago, and the mechanics chug along from there.

It’s all very boilerplate, and Lorenz doesn’t do much to spruce it up. In what unfolds as a sort of chimera between Shane and Witness, this film lacks the aesthetics of George Stevens and the empathy of Peter Weir to prove meaningful. It does, however, surprisingly avoid a few landmines one might anticipate. Neeson’s Jim isn’t drawn as some virulent racist to be cured in some Gran Torino fashion, and the film doesn’t presume to paper over any innate prejudices he may have. Even still, Lorenz doesn’t entirely do the POC characters any favors: here they’re either distressed illegal immigrants or vicious drug dealers while we worry about the put-upon white guy.  

Neeson’s ability to carry a grumbling, sad weight on his shoulders isn’t entirely lost here, but the actor’s output in the last decade or so has always fared better when it’s paired with a wink and a nod, a la any of his Collet-Serra outings. He plays cowboy steadily enough (dubious accent aside), but Lorenz can’t be bothered to lean on the actor’s action pedigree; there’s a surprising lack of marksmanship in The Marksman, it turns out. What’s more the director, seemingly shepherded here by steward and frequent collaborator Clint Eastwood, doesn’t imbue the plight with the proper emotional gravitas to warrant Neeson’s dramatic chops either.

The Marksman could be compelling if it at all dared to be. It flirts with a few trains of thought that perhaps could have rescued it from its own indifference, but it commits to more mundane aspirations. In one instance, by plucking Miguel from the Border Patrol, Jim seeks to save him from the clutches of the cartel rather than, say, the harrowing and thoroughly broken U.S. immigration system. In another, a too-little-too late bit of introspection, the film’s heavy (Juan Pablo Raba) muses on being indoctrinated into the cartel as a boy, never having been given a choice. The fleeting attempt at complexity rings false, but teases the viewer with a film that simply isn’t there: one that perhaps more acutely interrogates the U.S. institutions and interests that keep these cruelties firmly in place.

Any level of variation in The Marksman’s goings on feels lazily shrugged off as genre table setting. But perhaps something more empathetic or nuanced is better left to more adept filmmakers than those who brought us American Sniper and Trouble with the Curve.

The Marksman opens in theaters on Friday, January 15.

Grade: C-

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