In the winter 2021 model Liam Neeson Action Thriller, The Marksman, Neeson plays a character named Jim Hanson, and this distracted me enough that I'm suppose it would have been a huge bother even if the film was better. Or also if it was worse. The point is, Jim Hanson is just, I'm sorry, an off-limits name, especially since screenwriters Chris Charles & Danny Kravitz & Robert Lorenz (the last of these also directs) don't do anything with it, and for all I know they didn't even think about it. Maybe it's just one of those things where the texture of "Jim Hanson" just felt right, and nobody quite figured out why it seemed to work so snugly. Maybe we'll get lucky, and if there's a sequel, it will involve Jim Hanson selling his ranch to the friendly but domineering Walt Dosney.

Anyways, setting aside my obviously ludicrous but nonetheless extremely sincere hang-up, what's actually most noticeable about The Marksman is that it's functioning as something of an audition tape for Neeson to be able to take over Clint Eastwood's roles once Eastwood retires or dies. It is, indeed, practically overt about this. Lorenz, who produces on top of directing and co-writing, produced just about all of Eastwood's directorial efforts in the 2000s and early 2010s, and served several times as first or second assistant director on that man's sets. He also directed - his only other film in that capacity - 2012's Trouble with the Curve, the only film in the 21st Century that Eastwood acted in without also directing it. None of which necessarily means anything, but the plot feels exceedingly like the kind of thing Eastwood would be apt to star in, and the crusty old libertarian-ish SOB Neeson plays would be a no-brainer of an Eastwood character; even the typeface used for the film's title in the closing credits is almost exactly the same one used in The Mule. And just to make it good and explicit, at one point in the second half, the two main characters sit down to watch the 1968 Eastwood vehicle Hang 'Em High on a crummy hotel television.

None of which means anything inherently, but it does matter, because when we get down to it, the Late Eastwood Vehicle and the Late Neeson Vehicle, while they overlap in some particulars, aren't really doing the same thing enough that you can just smash them together. And sure enough, some of the biggest woes of The Marksman come from exactly that attempt at a hybridisation. This primarily manifests in the form of a really remarkably bad final act, when the film finally realises that it has been about Neeson as a man with a specific set of skills that it cared about so much that it literally titled the entire movie in reference to those skills, and has not as of yet used them in even the most glancing way to drive the narrative. So what has been, to this point, a spare and thin-lipped thriller about trying to keep your head down and just keep moving in the direction of safety, suddenly shifts into clumsily-done "Liam Neeson growls and murders" action scenes that nobody involved seems to have quite known how to make, or perhaps they just didn't care.

A pity, because before then, there are the bones of something good. I am not saying that those bones have been fleshed out. But there's an appealingly gruff directness to the set-up: Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her son Miguel (Jacob Perez) are on the run from a cartel boss after her brother ripped him off; while surreptitiously crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S, they end up crossing paths with rancher Jim *snort* Hanson, who is enough of a surly loner that his first thought is to contact the border patrol. Nothing especially comes of this, but the delay is enough for Rosa to end up fatally shot, and while Jim absolutely does not own up to this fact, his complicity in her death is pretty clear his driving motivation to help Miguel travel from Arizona to Chicago, IL, where Rosa had family, and I will not pretend that the complete narrative dead-end of a scene where Liam Neeson goes on and on about how Chicago hot dogs are the world's best hot dogs did not do a considerable amount to endear me to The Marksman.

Anyway, this is pretty generic stuff: miserable old SOB (his wife has recently died of cancer, and to pay for her bills, he had to sell off nearly all of the ranch; the bank is presently making moves to acquire the rest) very slowly thaws in the presence of a sad child. But it's a stock situation because it works, and Neeson is a great enough actor to sell the basic shape of Jim's relationship with Miguel, particularly in the early going when there's genuine animosity and resentment between them, and virtually nothing in the way of sentiment. He's much less good at playing Jim per se: digging into the brain of a irritable frontier loner has seemingly proved unexpectedly tough for the actor, and he frequently seems to be lost in his idea of Jim a s a "type" rather than a man. Or maybe it's just that his inconsistent approach to a Southwestern drawl makes everything else about the character seem equally uncertain and unsteady.

Either way, the part is a surprisingly poor fit for the actor, considering how closely elements of it stick to the established template for a post-Taken Liam Neeson action movie; and with the central character thus feeling a bit artificial and ill-formed, The Marksman really doesn't have much of a hope of working after that. Especially since Lorenz has made an apparent calculation that, since this is mostly about the relationship between Jim and Miguel, it's okay to linger on that relationship. It's not a long movie, at 108 minutes, but it's certainly a movie that feels long, crawling through scenes at an unhurried pace and making neither the bad guys nor the good guys (who are, anyways, not always aware that the bad guys are chasing them) demonstrate any real urgency for more than individual scenes at a time. Sometimes this even works; Neeson is a good actor, and Perez is mostly rising up to meet him, give or take some awfully cute and contrived plotting in the early going. When it's just the two of them hanging out, regarding each other in a wary silence, The Marksman even feels like a proper movie. In other words, when it's least like an action thriller, which is too bad given its obviously feeling of obligation towards that genre. Still, even by the standards of late-late Neeson action movies that suck at action, this has more to recommend than Honest Thief. Small achievements are still achievements.