In the late innings of a four-decade film career, Liam Neeson continues turning out the middle-aged action movies that have occupied so much of his time for the last dozen or so years. You've probably seen one or two of these pictures — "Taken," "Unknown," "Non-Stop." They generally feature Neeson as an elder badass of some sort — an ex-cop, a retired FBI agent, an alcoholic U.S. air marshal or even, in "Cold Pursuit," an angry snowplow driver. He usually brings more talent and presence to these movies than they deserve, an imbalance that's especially pronounced in his latest, "The Marksman," which combines a soft-pedaled hot issue (illegal immigration) with a shopworn bouquet of rote chase-movie cliches.
Neeson plays a present-day Arizona rancher named Jim Hanson, complete with dusty pickup truck and little straw rancher hat. Jim lost almost all of his money tending to his sick wife, who recently died of cancer, so times are tough. We can tell that he hails from a kindlier planet than our own when a man from the bank shows up to foreclose on his modest spread and he tells the man, "I just need some time to sort things out, get back on track." (Yes, that oughta do it.)
When a Mexican woman named Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her young son Miguel (Jacob Perez) illegally make their way over the border and onto Jim's property, he is at first only marginally moved by their plight. The issue of illegal immigration could be resolved, he believes, "if the government would get its s—- together and figure that mess out." (Like the movie in which he figures, Jim has little interest in pithy analysis.)
After Rosa dies from a gunshot wound sustained during her border crossing, Jim finds himself — as we know he must — cast in the role of Miguel's protector. There's also a bag of cash involved and a crew of central-casting drug-cartel heavies who want that bag of cash back. These guys aren't especially bright — their idea of a good way to capture Jim and Miguel is to station themselves on an overpass looking down on a major highway in hopes that Jim's dusty truck will pass beneath them eventually. But the group's leader, a skinny thug named Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba), is not a guy to be trifled with (you know he's hardcore because he wears a black leather jacket in the blazing Southwest sunshine). But then, although you might not know it by looking at him, Jim is a tough customer as well — an ex-Marine and, therefore, presumably a sharpshooter, although he doesn't get to demonstrate his marksmanship until the end of the movie, by which point you may have forgotten the film's title.
Among the movie's problems, which are not few in number, are the actors, the script and the direction. Jacob Perez is a notably inexpressive child performer — I kept waiting for him to wake up and realize that a movie was being made all around him — and Juan Pablo Raba spends most of his screen time incarnating evil by way of smoldering, grim-lipped close-ups (director Robert Lorenz must share the blame for this, of course). Katheryn Winnick, who plays Neeson's stepdaughter, is the only personable player in the main cast, but she's in the movie for 10, 15 minutes tops. Elsewhere, the camera setups are strictly utilitarian — there goes a car; here comes a po-faced bad guy — and the script, while well-stocked with plot holes, contains not one zesty line (a serious failure in any action flick, even one rated PG-13).
Neeson has always found time for spiffier films among his action outings — collaborations with Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers, for example — so there may be more quality material in his future. His upcoming schedule (not necessarily definite) includes a Raymond Chandler riff called "Marlowe" (in which he would play the celebrated detective) and a Joss Whedon movie, too. On the other hand, he's also lined up to star in a film called "Retribution," whose plot is summarized on IMDb as "A bank executive receives a bomb threat while driving his children to school that his car will explode if they stop and get out." Sounds familiar.
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.