Jim Hanson’s quiet life is suddenly disturbed by two people crossing the US/Mexico border – a woman and her young son – desperate to flee a Mexican cartel. After a shootout leaves the mother dead, Jim becomes the boy’s reluctant defender. He embraces his role as Miguel’s protector and will stop at nothing to get him to safety, as they go on the run from the relentless assassins.
At first, Miguel (Jacob Perez), silent and doleful in his soccer cap (though the fact that he likes Gummy Bears is an indication there’s more to him), glowers at Neeson’s Jim Hanson, an Arizona rancher who has fallen on hard times. The boy’s mother, Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), got killed during a border scuffle, and if Jim hadn’t first intercepted them her death might not have happened. What we know — and the boy doesn’t — is that if it weren’t for Jim, the cartel would have taken them back to Mexico and killed them anyway, for possessing a cache of money stolen by Rosa’s brother. The boy simply has yet to discover the valor that lurks in every Neeson bruiser.
Neeson, in a light blue shirt, straw hat, and soulful pained expression, looks like a scarecrow version of Vincent van Gogh, but once the film settles in he wears a worn baseball cap that doesn’t flatter him; it makes him look depressed. Then again, that’s maybe intentional, since Jim is a man who is running on empty. He lost his wife to cancer in a battle that wiped out his assets, and now he can’t pay his mortgage. There’s a hole where his life used to be, and that’s the space that gets filled by his mission to save Miguel. After sneaking out of the local U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Station, the two climb into Jim’s ancient Chevy pickup and head for Chicago, where Miguel’s relatives are. “The Marksman” turns into an elemental action road movie in which the two are tracked at every turn by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba), the Vasquez cartel’s bald murder machine, and his fellow assassins.
As a character, Neeson’s Jim falls into place with a few stray not-quite-convincing traits: He doesn’t own a cell phone (“Nobody needs to call me, and I like it that way”), and he tells Miguel a rather doddering anecdote about loving the street hot dogs in Chicago when he was a boy (taking it on faith, as the film does, that the same hot dogs will be there today). He’s also a Vietnam veteran who wields a telescopic rifle with a sniper’s flair that makes it seem a more lethal weapon than a machine gun. The bare-bones quirks stick out because Jim is a less furious, more elegiac version of the mad-as-hell Neeson hero. He even gets a sendoff on a bus that evokes one of Dustin Hoffman’s most famous exits.
The director, Robert Lorenz, stages the action with a convincing ebb and flow, but thanks to an undercooked script what happens in between is mostly boilerplate. Jacob Perez, as Miguel, has the quiet demeanor of a genuine kid, but there are moments when you wish he had more spice to him, that he was a bit more of a cutesy movie kid. You could describe the young heroines of “True Grit” or “Paper Moon” that way, but they live on in your imagination. “The Marksman” is a movie to forget the moment it’s over.