An Arizona rancher living near the Mexico border gets on the wrong side of a drug cartel in Robert Lorenz’s road movie thriller The Marksman. It’s a timely and ultimately predictable story, but it gets an unassuming push from its lead Liam Neeson. Yes, this is a late entry in the Irish thespian’s second act as an action hero. It’s not the best of Neeson’s middle-aged action movies, but at a time when we all feel helpless, it’s a welcome thrill.

Neeson stars as Jim, an ex-Marine turned rancher who, as he explains to his daughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), has spent his life serving his country and paying his taxes. But he’s near the end of his rope; he’s mourning his wife, who died after a long illness, and on top of that he’s in danger of losing his ranch to foreclosure, which makes all his efforts to be a good citizen seem to be for naught. On the other side of the border, a mother and her young son make an border crossing as they’re being pursued by vicious members of drug cartel led by the cruel Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba). Jim happens to be driving along the border with his dog Jackson when he makes a fateful meeting with the mother and child, setting into motion the typical slow burn of the Neeson action movie.

Characterization isn’t exactly rich here. Everyone is pretty much playing a stock role; Jacob Perez, as the child on the run, is little more than a pawn, and other than Neeson, the adults aren’t much more defined. Still, Raba is a colorful villain, vaguely coming off like an evil Henry Rollins, and the actor manages to give his stock cartel henchman a second dimension by the brutal climax.

But this is Neeson’s show, and his character’s backstory gives his vengeance a little more depth than usual, albeit one steeped in the tried-and-true veteran-whose-country-has-turned-against-him trope. The script, which Lorenz co-wrote with Chris Charles and Danny Kravitz, sets this Irishman in a nation that’s clearly falling apart; the sight of Neeson eating pop-tarts under a bridge seems like a particularly 2021 mood. The action follows from the Mexico border to Chicago, in part following the fabled Route 66: The Marksman is very much about America, warts and all. It’s not for nothing that in one of the first images we have of Jim, we see him taking down the U.S. flag he has flying on his property. Jim reluctantly comes to the defense of a boy running from the cartel, but of course, what he’s really defending is America, all over again, protecting the future of a lost young boy and extolling the pleasures of the Chicago hot dog.

To young audiences, the sight of grizzled veterans kicking ass may seem sad. But to older viewers who find themselves out of step with pop culture, the typical Neeson actioner provides some hope that even if your body is failing, you may still have some fight left in you. In The Marksman, that failing body still has the reliable eyes that, like the movie that surrounds him, hits its target.

The sight of Liam Neeson eating Pop-Tarts under a bridge seems like a particularly 2021 mood.
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minor catharsis

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