There are more clichés than bullets flying around in "The Marksman," an action movie starring Liam Neeson and all that implies.
And there are a lot of bullets.
It's also a buddy picture with a touch of political commentary, a road picture with gunfights. But for all that, director Robert Lorenz's film (??½ out of five; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday), which he wrote with Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz, exists mostly to give Neeson an excuse to embody the strong, silent type, more adept at picking off bad guys than making conversation as he saves someone. Again.
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It's sort of a low-key Clint Eastwood act, but in fairness, Neeson's good at it. He plays Jim Hanson, a rancher in Naco, Arizona - a real-life speck of a town on the border with Mexico. We meet Jim as he's shooting a coyote that has attacked a dog. While he's working that out, he spots some people walking through the desert and calls the Border Patrol, saying he's spotted a couple of "IAs," presumably "Illegal Aliens." © Courtesy of Ryan SweeneyLiam Neeson stars as Jim in director Robert Lorenz's "The Marksman."
No, that is not the preferred term, but it is definitely the one Jim prefers. When he gets back to his home on the ranch, a man arrives and says he is from the bank; Jim is behind on his payments, and he has 90 days to catch up before the bank sells his place at auction.
'Honest Thief': Liam Neeson on the best way to give Kate Walsh bad news and fighting without pain © Contributed by Ryan Sweeney/Open Road Films/Briarcliff EntertainmentLiam Neeson stars as Jim and Jacob Perez as Miguel, in director Robert Lorenz's "The Marksman."
If you're wondering how subtle this film is, Jim, a former U.S. Marine, literally has a folded American flag draped over his shoulder while he talks to the guy from the bank.
When Jim hits the bar later that night, we learn why he's behind: His wife's medical bills wiped him out. She died of cancer. Her daughter, Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), a Border Patrol supervisor, collects him and takes him home to sober up, but not before he can express how he feels about border issues: "It would be fine if the government could get its (expletive) together and figure that mess out."
Meanwhile, in Mexico, Miguel (Jacob Perez) is doing his homework while his mom, Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), makes dinner. She gets a call from her brother: Leave. Now. He's run afoul of a cartel, so they're in danger, too.
The next day Jim is driving along the border fence with his trusty dog when Miguel pops through the fence and into the road. Rosa follows. Jim is calling the Border Patrol on them when a black SUV full of armed men pulls up on the other side of the fence. One hops out and tells Jim he needs Rosa and Miguel back. Jim responds in his Jim way: "Sorry, Pancho. These illegals are mine."
Cue bloody gunfight.
Jim winds up racing away with Rosa and Miguel in his truck; more complications ensue. Long story short: Jim and Miguel wind up on the run, with Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba), the man from the border, in pursuit with a small band of thugs. To make matters worse, Jim killed Mauricio's brother during the earlier battle.
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At first, Miguel has no use for Jim. And Jim has little use for Miguel. But it's nothing that talk of Chicago hot dogs and a little weapons instruction can't overcome, naturally.
And maybe, just maybe, Jim can learn a little about tolerance from Miguel. Who can say? (Other than anyone who's seen a movie like this.)
It's heavy-handed to the point of absurdity. This is also the kind of movie where people are particularly good at healing from gunshots, stab wounds and flipping cars.
Yet "The Marksman" is not awful. It's not particularly good, either, but it's not the disaster it should have been. Part of that has to do with the way Lorenz stages the action - well-choreographed and tense. Part of it has to do with Perez, who combines being adorable with a kind of hard-won wisdom beyond his years that makes for a completely winning character.
And of course a lot of it has to do with Neeson, who manages to imbue a surly, broken man with decency and a capacity for growth. He's done the aging action hero bit enough now that it's second nature - what we expect now of the actor who played Oskar Schindler all those years ago.
It's an unusual evolution, and you know Neeson is capable of so much more. But at the same time, he can make a movie like "The Marksman" a lot better than it has any right to be, and that's something.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Review: Liam Neeson saves 'The Marksman' from being a total disaster