There have, on occasion, been terrific dramas built around the relationship between a crusty adult and a spiky kid. “True Grit” (1969) was good, with the firebrand tomboy Kim Darby a perfect foil for the aging cowpoke John Wayne (and it was a more memorable movie than the Coen brothers’ remake). “Paper Moon” (1973) was good, bringing a deserved Oscar to Tatum O’Neal, and playing off the bristly real-world chemistry between her and her father Ryan. “Logan” (2017) was good, an action film neatly grounded in watching Hugh Jackman’s metal-clawed but fading Wolverine, in his last journey, mentor Dafne Keen as the dark-eyed ferocious urchin who might be the one to replace him.
But those are exceptions. With the arrival of “The Marksman,” Liam Neeson’s latest piece of watchable-product-that’s-not-as-good-as-he-is, the current movie season has now given us no less than three dramas in which stalwart adults partner with children who wind up showing them the way: the meandering Tom Hanks Western “News of the World”; George Clooney’s flatly dystopian Arctic-tundra-meets-space odyssey “The Midnight Sky”; and now “The Marksman,” in which Neeson, he of the bone-lean gaze and solitary skills, bonds with a just-arrived-from-over-the-border Mexican boy he’s shielding from cartel goons. I mean no disrespect to any of the young actors involved in these movies when I say that in all three, the taking-a-child-under-his-wing plot tends be a lead weight on screen. None of the films, on its own terms, is badly made, yet the kid characters are all spunky saints, and there’s a sodden predictability to where the stories are headed.
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.