Photo: ‘The Marksman’/Open Road Films
‘The Marksman’ – A Wound that Has Not Healed
Perhaps the most memorable detail in ‘The Marksman’, the new Liam Neeson action film in theaters this week, is the small bandage that sticks to the face of the cartel assassin that murderously pursues Neeson and the young Mexican boy he’s promised to protect. It’s about the size of a pencil eraser–it’s the kind of bandage you might apply if you’ve cut yourself shaving. It appears on his face after a desert shootout involving automatic weapons that leaves two people dead. The assassin, named Maurico, is not overtly presented as a Patrick Bateman type, particularly concerned about his appearance. He’s not a camp cliche, nor is he flamboyant or effeminate. At yet, there it is, the comically small bandage that conspicuously sits right in the middle of his otherwise unblemished cheek.
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It’s a mesmerizing detail that almost insists on being unpuzzled, and it only becomes more fascinating as the film complicates our understanding of its antagonist. Maurico is his name, and we are frequently reminded that he is a ruthless killer, recruited by the cartel as a child, who will stop at nothing to hunt down his prey. In one of the film’s many nods to the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece ‘No Country for Old Men’, Maurico cuts through sleepy southwestern towns like an apex predator, flashing a disarming smile at various clerks and cashiers before violently dispatching them.
A Meeting of Soldiers
In ‘No Country for Old Men’, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh ceaselessly stalks Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss after Moss fortuitously finds a duffel bag full of cartel cash. ‘The Marksman’ has a similar setup, only the duffel bag has a child attached to it. While Maurico doesn’t utilize a method as theatrical as Anton Chigurh’s coin toss to decide whether the various bystanders he encounters will live or die, there do seem to be elements of randomness and caprice to Maurico’s attacks. He is a force of nature, and yet just as ‘No Country for Old Men’ made its monster shed blood, ‘The Marksman’ seems to want to make its monster shed a tear.
It doesn’t quite go that far, but the moments that find Maurico in wordless foreboding contemplation are the film’s most unsettling. One such scene sees Maurico standing outside a cartel safe house, surveying the blissfully unaware suburbanite neighbors enjoying their afternoon. Another sees him in a strip mall, staring down a blond woman sitting in a red sports car. Maurico harbors an unarticulated sense of injustice. The comfort, the excess, and the functionality of American society feed his rage. It doesn’t help that when Maurico and Neeson’s Jim Hanson have their first confrontation, Maurico introduces himself as a ‘soldier’, likening his cartel position to Hanson’s role in the Marine Corps–only to have Hanson deny the similarity. For the rest of the film, Maurico derisively refers to Hanson using the nickname ‘Marine Corps’, suggesting a psychic wound. It also doesn’t help that during that confrontation Hanson kills Maurico’s brother, perhaps one of the last remaining links to Maurico’s stolen childhood.
The Karmic Cycle of Greed
Rather than dismiss Maurico’s assertion with jingoistic patriotism, ‘The Marksman’ contemplates it. Neeson’s character is a veteran of the Vietnam War, a conflict of American interventionism not celebrated as being one of the US’s most righteous moments. On top of that, Hanson only agrees to ‘do the right thing’ and help the young Miguel (Jacob Perez) escape after he realizes that the cash the boy carries is enough to prevent the bank from foreclosing on his ranch. Neeson, as the protagonist, has an introspective journey that mirrors that of the film’s antagonist.
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While he does dip into the cash to fix his truck (an encounter with a jauntily-accented octogenarian mechanic named Otto is a verisimilitude-bending highlight, as if a Mary Poppins character suddenly dropped into the Texas panhandle) and to buy guns (he notably does not upgrade his firepower, he simply replaces the guns stolen from him in an earlier scene), the cartel money comes to take on philosophical significance. Even if Hanson and Miguel fend off the cartel and keep their loot, will the karmic cycle of greed and violence not continue?
This is not a geriatric ‘John Wick’ copy that has its hero jiu-jitsuing his way through hordes of faceless cartel goons with nothing but a superficial eyebrow scratch to show for their trouble. The director Robert Lorenz, a frequent producer and assistant director for Clint Eastwood, captures some of his mentor’s thoughtfulness here. The film comes to theaters at a time of considerable national unrest, and perhaps it’s another ideal example of a narrative designed to subtly critique the dogma of the outgoing administration and its staunchest adherents. The outlook of ‘The Marksman’ is less rose-colored than that of ‘News of the World’, the Tom Hanks vehicle that also happens to be a Western released in the waning days of the Trump administration about an older man fighting injustice while shepherding a lost immigrant child to distant relatives, but it certainly seems intended for the same target audience.
A Tonic for Toxic Rhetoric
If these films are partly intended to be a tonic for older Americans made dyspeptic by four years of toxic rhetoric, Neeson is uniquely suited to administer it. Like our President-Elect, Liam Neeson has made mistakes, but both men have acknowledged the necessity for an evolving outlook. Like Biden, Neeson has faced the tragedy of losing a loved one–his wife, Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident in 2009. Neeson’s character here is also a widower, and he tells his step-daughter (Katheryn Winnick) that he believes she is guiding him towards the path of virtuousness. There may be some synthesis between the trajectory of the character and the actor. While some of Neeson’s actioners may be Charles Bronson-esque, stoking a sense of crime wave paranoia, this film has more nuance.
The film’s nuance has it acknowledging culpability beyond the cartel itself, like when Neeson confronts a corrupt police officer in league with the villains. Hanson seems to come to acknowledge his own responsibility as well, as cosmic as it might be. Going back to the tiny bandage, I realized while watching this film how instinctual it felt to loathe the cartel villain, but the bandage humanized the character enough that I got curious about the actor inhabiting the role. His name is Juan Pablo Raba, and he is a Colombian actor who studied acting at New York’s Lee Strasberg Institute. While English-language films like ‘Peppermint’ and ‘Shot Caller’ frequently cast him as a cartel mobster, he also played a trapped Chilean miner in ‘The 33’ and a millionaire playboy in the Colombian telenovela ‘Pobres Rico’. He’s the most unforgettable part of ‘The Marksman’, creating a layered performance without the benefit of much screen-time or dialogue. Hollywood typecasting is changing, but perhaps not quickly enough. It’s yet another karmic cycle that will require intentionality to escape.
‘The Marksman’ is currently playing at select theaters.
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