If Liam Neeson’s latest Taken adventure is any indication, the public’s appetite for vengeful mayhem and vigilantism may have dimmed somewhat of late. Which is… probably a good thing? Certainly a good thing for the world, if not for art, assuming Taken movies qualify as art.
Admittedly, I use the term “Taken movie” somewhat loosely. Neeson’s latest vehicle, opening in select theaters and as a VOD rental this weekend, isn’t technically a Taken sequel, nor does it come from any of the original creative team from Taken. But we all know what “Taken movie” implies at this point, right? Almost every Liam Neeson vehicle made since 2008 has been a spiritual sequel to Taken if not a literal one, starring Neeson as a pissed off old guy with a gun and a particular set of skills, unleashed to avenge his daughter/wife/nice vegetable patch (“Killing you isn’t going to bring my goddamned eggplant back.”). Point being, we know what we’re getting with this particular genre, and The Marksman, starring Neeson as a Texas rancher protecting a young boy from drug cartels, is a perfectly adequate exercise in providing it. If it lacks some of the panache and grindhouse appeal of previous installments, it also avoids the xenophobia and general mean-spiritedness.
So what sets this one apart?
When the bad foreign guys in Taken mess with Neeson’s family, they awaken his worst impulses — his rage, his willingness to torture and kill — and before long he’s merc-ing Eurotrash henchmen left and right and stabbing old ladies in the arm to extract information. This is all delivered on the assumption (a correct one) that it’s fun to watch Liam Neeson kill young men and stab old ladies.
When the bad guys come to town in The Marksman, by contrast, a Mexican drug cartel chasing a young mother and her boy across Neeson’s character’s land, it’s notable that what they stir up in Neeson’s character isn’t vengeance and murder and revenge (okay, a little murder) — it’s his compassion, his willingness to stick his neck out for others, and to some extent, his reason to go on living. Neeson still plays a crotchety, mean old son of a bitch (would we have it any other way?) but rather than being a happy retiree who finds reason to be a cold-hearted killer again, he’s an embittered retiree who finds someone worth killing for.
It’s probably relevant to note here that Marksman director Robert Lorenz is known for being a second unit director on a handful of Clint Eastwood movies (as well as directing Trouble with the Curve) so maybe it’s just logical that The Marksman would be more like Grand Torino than Taken. Usually, latter-day Taken knockoffs are directed by European music video (or commercial) directors, and there’s probably enough material there for a thesis examining Americans-as-Europeans-see-us vs. Americans-as-we-like-to-see-ourselves through the lens of who directed which Liam Neeson action film. That is — borderline psychotic, dangerous to piss off, stabbing random bystanders, killing lots of people; vs. fundamentally decent, compassionate, turns to violence as a last resort, kills lots of people, but only to protect the weak. We never forget to couch our violence in good intentions.
I’ll leave that for someone else to flesh out, but in any case, in The Marksman, Neeson plays Jim, a widowed Marine veteran with a Silver Star from ‘Nam who’s six months behind on the payments for his tiny cattle ranch on the Mexican border and whose only friends since his wife died of cancer are a delightful border collie named Jackson and an unrealistically attractive Border Patrol agent played by Katheryn Winnick. But one day, a young mother (Teresa Ruiz) and her son, Miguel (Jacob Perez) stumble across Jim’s land, with enforcers from a cartel, led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) in hot pursuit.
Mauricio tries to pull the whole “we’re not so different, you and I,” with Jim — he’s a soldier for the cartel, Jim was a soldier in Vietnam — but ol’ Jim isn’t buying it. Nonetheless, Mauricio will note Jim’s Marine status in every subsequent interaction, referring to Jim as “Madine Coors” in his delightful accent. “Ju mess with the wrong cabrón thees time, Madine Coors!”
The cartel chases Jim and Miguel across the country, and that’s pretty much the movie. Jim and Miguel don’t quite have the sporadic chemistry that Eastwood and Bee Vang had in Gran Torino (I say sporadic because it came and went, presumably on account of Eastwood’s notorious refusal to shoot extra takes) but it’s… pleasant enough. Jim is… mostly a pretty stand-up guy. He won’t let the Border Patrol deport Miguel, no matter how hot an agent they send after him.
The Marksman also does a surprisingly good job humanizing its bad guys and not demonizing the entire country of Mexico, which is a difficult balancing act to perform in a movie created to fulfill the promise of an old white guy killing people. If you want to see the openly xenophobic version of The Marksman, there’s always Rambo: Last Blood.
Of course, The Marksman isn’t quite as sickenly entertaining as Rambo: Last Blood either. Though it does do a decent job of being reasonably enjoyable without being actively evil, if that’s what you’re after. Think of The Marksman as a zesty, low-cal Last Blood with 85% of the flavor and none of the guilt.