Liam Neeson Cosplays Late-Late-Period Clint Eastwood in THE MARKSMAN

There is no shortage of Clint Eastwood. He may not star in movies as regularly anymore, but his late-late-period career has featured so many roles that seemed like de facto retirement ceremonies that Gran Torino, Trouble with the Curve, and The Mule feel closer together than they are, spread out over the course of a decade. He has at least one more starring role to go; his movie Cry Macho is due out by the end of 2021. By then, he will be 91. The Mule, his last not-quite-last movie made $100 million in the United States. He is easily the most popular eighty-and-ninetysomething actor and director in Hollywood history.

Yet at some point, very likely in the next five to ten years, Clint Eastwood will no longer make movies. (This is not a prediction of his death, mind. If it’s easy to picture any movie star making it to 110, it’s Clint.) He will leave behind the perception that a certain segment of the moviegoing public really enjoys seeing middle-to-advanced-aged men put younger bad guys in their place. 2009’s Taken, starring Liam Neeson, is generally considered to have kicked off the modern strain of old-man-vengeance thrillers, but Eastwood was there a few weeks earlier with 2008’s Grand Torino, just as big a hit with an even older protagonist. (Neeson was a spry 57 when Taken came out, compared with Eastwood’s 79 at the same time.)

Gran Torino is not an action thriller–but then, neither, exactly, are many of Neeson’s late-career forays into leading-man violence. Last fall’s Honest Thief was more of a lazy cat-and-mouse game with some punches and explosions. Cold Pursuit was a dark comedy. The Commuter and Non-Stop are pulpy locked-room mysteries set on the modes of conveyance where they’d most likely be consumed in paperback form. And his new movie The Marksman is, well, pretty much a Clint Eastwood drama.

The basic logline is already pretty Eastwoodian: rancher, widower, and ex-Marine Jim Hanson (Neeson) promises a dying immigrant that he will help her young son Miguel (Jacob Perez) elude a vicious drug cartel, resulting in a cross-country road trip. Jim even has a great old-man-vengeance gimmick where Jim’s great power comes from his skill as, yes, a marksman; in other words, he can be deadly without needing to break into a sprint. Under the right circumstances, he could kick ass from an easy chair.

This could all apply to any variations on the aging cowboy offered up by Sylvester Stallone or Kevin Costner or whoever else, but The Marksman goes further: It’s co-written and directed by Robert Lorenz, who previously directed Eastwood in 2012’s Trouble with the Curve after serving as the star’s go-to assistant director and producer for 15 years. Like so many Eastwood movies, it has its star serving as a gruff, reluctant father to both a younger surrogate child and a grown-up actual daughter (Amy Adams had this sometimes-thankless role in Curve; Kathryn Winnick serves it here, as Jim’s stepdaughter). And despite a few shoot-outs and fisticuffs, it’s not much concerned with the rigors of tight thrillmaking, taking an occasionally elegiac tone as an old man grapples with his choices.

Well, sort of. Neeson is a remarkable actor, and has summoned great guilt and regret in plenty of committed B-movie performances, which nonetheless doesn’t automatically make him a great fit for Jim Hanson, the lonely rancher who offers border-crossers water and food and stops others from hurting them, but also calls Border Patrol to turn them in. Neeson’s Irishness has been gradually transformed, via his action-hero career, into a kind of vaguely North American masculinity; in the Taken series, he convincingly represented a certain kind of “expert” American xenophobia. But he’s not an easy swap-out for Eastwood because as tough as he appears, with his tall frame and authoritative voice, he doesn’t have that coiled Clint steeliness. Late-period Liam Neeson characters don’t squint into the distance. They get worked up in a mix of agitation, frustration, and self-loathing.

Some of this happens as Jim tries to escort poor Miguel to some family in Chicago, helped along by the promise that he might be able to keep the drug money the cartel is seeking, and avoid foreclosure on his modest ranch. But the combination of Neeson’s more demonstrative style and the movie’s attempt at Eastwoodian politics is a reminder of just what an odd, opaque, fascinating figure Eastwood can be, even when it’s easy to read some of his movies as right-wing allegory. Movies like The Mule and Richard Jewell have complicating factors, odd moments of ambivalence and idiosyncrasy, where Lorenz’s film has self-conscious mitigations. Jim calls the cops on immigrants, but he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt (at least not in front of him) and vaguely laments the “mess” at the border. Jim is in dire economic straits but he’s not looking for a handout, just a little extra time. Jim wants to buy a gun without waiting for the mandatory background check but only to protect himself and the child in his unofficial custody. He’s one of the good ones, in that he’s probably not conceived as a Trump supporter, and one of the bad ones, in that he sure as hell wouldn’t vote for one of Trump’s opponents.

None of this makes The Marksman a bad movie on its own; that’s more on the lack of grace notes amidst the expected, sometimes comforting creaks of formula. Lorenz knows the words to an Eastwood-style movie, but on his own he doesn’t nail the laconic whimsy of its music. (Well, maybe he does on a literal level; Sean Callery’s music sounds a bit like one of Eastwood’s minimalist self-composed scores.) There’s a daftness to even the less surehanded Eastwood films that Lorenz, as a man of merely 55 years, cannot seem to replicate naturally. The Marksman might be less ridiculous than The Mule, but it somehow feels more like a movie.

It falls to Neeson to provide a few moments of distinction, even as he has trouble translating his favorite (and stereotypically Irish) B-movie touchstones–familial strife, weakness for the drink–into the land of Trump’s border wall. Similar to the way Eastwood both indulges and interrogates his familiar persona as he ages, Neeson sounds faint notes of atonement by playing this semi-caricatured racist whose prejudices come through with carelessness rather than a mission statement. Was he thinking of his confession, I wonder, that he went out spoiling for racially motivated violence as a young man, following an attack on a friend? I don’t bring this up to condemn Neeson, but to reckon with the uneasy stew of The Marksman, a border-conflict old-man sorta-action movie released five days before the end of the Trump presidency, one that feels equally interested in reconciliation and bloodspill; naturally, it’s coming out only in theaters at a time when simple pandemic safety practices have been insanely politicized beyond the point of return. This isn’t a comforting Dad Movie like A Walk Among the Tombstones or Jack Reacher; it’s also not a secret rebuke of the Dad Movie mentality. As frequently as Clint Eastwood retires, this movie, of all things, plays like a swan song by virtue of his absence from it. Lorenz accidentally produces an elegy for his former boss: Whatever you think of Eastwood’s work, when he’s gone, not even the incomparable Liam Neeson(s) will be able to replace him.