The Marksman: Proving the old adage: “Give Jacob Perez a gun, and he's safe for a scene. Have Liam Neeson teach him how to shoot, and it's a lifetime's worth of entertainment.”
Over the past decade or so, the early months of the year — a time when most average moviegoers spend their days either catching up on Awards Season dross or in hibernation — have generally proven fertile stomping grounds for Liam Neeson (Taken, The Grey, Cold Pursuit) both commercially and, on occasion, artistically. In another time, my sights would have been set on a January 15 visit to the multiplex to catch The Marksman, but covid-19 played monkey wrench to the plan, and I had to hold off until it became available for download.
A decorated Vietnam veteran, Jim Hanson (Neeson) spends his days patrolling the border in search of “illegals.” It’s sunset, and our titular rifleman had just finished lowering the flag on his front lawn. Swathed in Old Glory, Jim listens as a suit from the bank arrives with news that his home will be put up for auction. He’s lost everything: his wife (to cancer), his livelihood, and now his ranch. And the mounting hospital bills have left him broke. Relax. It’s a movie. Things are bound to get worse from here.
While on the prowl, he encounters Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her young son Miguel (Jacob Perez) fleeing a drug cartel. Jim calls the sheriff before realizing just how much danger the mother and son are in. A violent exchange leaves Miguel an orphan and Jim guilty of killing the brother of the ring’s thrill-killing leader Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba). A curbside vigil finds Rosa saying her last goodbyes and asking Jim to drive the boy to her family’s Chicago home. The dutiful law-abider instead turns Miguel over to the authorities, but not for long. A guilty streak and a plot in need of motivation have their say, and in no time, Jim has kidnapped the boy from the border patrol office with the help of his late wife’s duly-sworn daughter Sarah (Kathryn Winnick), and it’s off to the Windy City.
An occasional pothole adds a bump or two to an otherwise smooth journey. This is a savvy, computer-literate band of mercenaries we’re dealing with, people who are capable of tracking Jim’s every move. His refusal to own a phone (“Nobody needs to call me”) admittedly makes him more difficult to spot, but the string of murders that follow Jim — from convenience store clerk to auto mechanic and so on — adds to the plotting a predictable pattern of death by credit card. As techno-smart as they are, would these criminals really possess within them the patience to spend hours, if not days, standing on an overpass, looking down at every car until the one driven by Jim passes below? And why on earth would Jim ever consider making good on the bank loan after Mauricio torches his home?
Miguel initially blames Jim for his mother’s death. He pretends not to know a word of English, but we know it’s just a matter of time before the kid lets his guard down. Happily, their relationship never borders on mawkish. Together, they make a fine pair, with Jim, a Godzilla with a cowboy hat, towering over Miguel’s diminutive Minilla. Jim is a guy who gets the job done. The decision to take Miguel to Chicago was his, and it’s something he is going to have to live with. If this sounds like a Clint Eastwood hand-me-down, it might very well have been one. Eastwood’s former 1st AD-turned-director Robert Lorenz (Trouble With the Curve) leads with an uncluttered visual style, a respect for his characters framed in juxtaposition with the land that would make his former boss proud. ★★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup:
George Gallo’s The Comeback Trail and Vanquish
A copy of The Comeback Trail has been lounging on my hard drive for going on four months now. This week, temptation finally got the best of me. George Gallo rocketed out of the gate with such propulsion that his feet never touched down. He scripted Brian De Palma’s underrated Wise Guys and a film one can never say enough of, Midnight Run, before making his directorial debut with 29th Street, the knockabout true story of the first man ever to strike it rich in the New York lottery. This was followed by the affable Nicolas Cage Christmas comedy Trapped in Paradise. It’s been almost two decades and seven features since a film with Gallo’s name attached played San Diego — he wrote The Whole Ten Yards. What are the chances of two pictures signed by George Gallo crossing my radar within a four month period? To say he’s on a comeback trail of his own would be half-right. There’s also Vanquish, a crime thriller that’s impossible to overcome.
No matter how much trouble Max Barber (De Niro) finds himself in, he always finds a way out. A low-rent Hollywood fringe dweller in hock to mobster Reggie Fontaine (Morgan Freeman) for $350,000, Max comes up with a surefire scheme to pay him back. He scours the Actor’s Retirement Home, looking to cast a former leading man just frail enough that one stunt will kill him. Such a man is cowboy superstar relic Duke Montana (Tommy Lee Jones), a crusty outcast looking to end it all. (When Max happens upon Montana, the old buckaroo has a cocked pistol aimed at his tonsils.) With a $5 million life insurance policy taken out in his name, the rickety curmudgeon’s demise would cause production to cease on day one. Or would it? Suppose his work proves to be so impressive that even Reggie stands humbled by Montana’s return to glory?
Robert De Niro’s old Midnight Run buddy has come through again. It’s been years since a De Niro picture has brought forth so much intentional laughter. With his white shock of Albert Einstein hair and bulbous-nosed good cheer, I see Jack Warden in De Niro’s every move. Max is the kind of blustery con-man Warden would have naturally gravitated toward, and it’s great to see De Niro once again sink his teeth into a formidable comic character. (This makes a great double-feature with The Comedian.) It’s unlikely, but one hopes that this is the first of many comedies to pair De Niro and Jones.
The Comeback Trail is based on Harry Hurwitz’s 1982 film of the same name, one that’s nowhere to be found. Even the blackest cupboards on the dark web couldn’t turn up a copy. One can’t help but think Hurwitz was inspired by Vittorio de Sica’s After the Fox and Mel Brooks’ The Producers, a pair of ’60s comedies that turn to art as a means of bilking money out of “investors.” Prof. Irwin Corey and Henny Youngman both receive screen credit for “additional material.” And it stars Buster Crabbe in the Duke Montana role! Run the specs on IMDB and if you can track down a copy, please share. ★★★
Vanquish finds Gallo careening in the opposite direction of a comeback. Ruby Rose stars as Victoria, a single mother whose past as a Russian drug smuggler comes back to haunt her when former mentor Damon (Morgan Freeman) kidnaps her sick daughter in exchange for one last job. Once a decorated top cop, a bullet has sidelined Damon, turning him into a bitter wheelchair-bound recluse eager to cross over to a life of wrongdoing by putting his vast knowledge of criminology to bad use. Turning up the guilt, Damon reminds Victoria that were it not for his largesse, she would have been jailed and her child placed in foster care.
Alone in his pastel-lit mansion (“You didn’t think I could afford a place like this on a cop’s salary?”), Damon watches every one of Victoria’s moves through her body-cam, but there’s not much to observe. These characters have no life assigned to them; they’re stick-figure slaves to a godawful script co-penned by Gallo and Sam Bartlett. For the benefit of the unmindful in the audience, in two instances, a montage is called into action to help recap material that was covered just moments earlier. Using cross dissolves rather than straight cuts might have better suited dialogue scenes were there some motivation behind their disposition other than, “Hey! Wouldn’ it be cool if...” And the plotting is the least perplexing piece of the serrated puzzle. Audiences leave with one question left unanswered: why did Ruby Rose pass on a lucrative career as TV‘s Batwoman to co-star in schlock like this? ★