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‘No Man’s Land,’ ‘The Marksman’: Border action films fail in different ways

Of the two movies about anti-immigration Americans on the run, one has too much to say, the other not enough.

A border-patrolling volunteer (Liam Neeson) agrees to bring an orphaned boy (Jacob Perez) to relatives in Chicago in “The Marksman.”
Open Road

An American civilian living near the border of Mexico won’t hesitate to call the U.S. Border Patrol when he sees undocumented immigrants trying to cross over. If necessary, he’ll even take matters into his own hands. After a tragic shooting, life-changing decisions must be made in the blink of an eye, and a chase is on.

The immigration actioners “No Man’s Land” and “The Marksman” share those plot elements in common but tackle this complicated and provocative issue in vastly different manners, with “No Man’s Land” filled with good intentions and parables, while “The Marskman” is light on the social messaging and heavy on the clichés.

• Conor Allyn’s “No Man’s Land” is filled with noble ideas about the value of listening to and learning from the “other side” in the immigration crisis, but as it becomes increasingly heavy-handed, we feel as if we’re sitting in on a lecture. Frank Grillo’s Bill and Andie MacDowell’s Monica Greer and their grown sons Jackson (Jake Allyn, who co-wrote the screenplay) and Luke (Alex MacNicoll) live on a cattle ranch in the “No Man’s Land” between the Rio Grande and the official U.S.-Mexico border checkpoints. The Greers are often awakened by the sounds of their cattle scattering as undocumented border-crossers race across their property, usually led by a legendary coyote named Gustavo, a.k.a. the Shepherd (Jorge A. Jimenez).

One night, as Bill and his sons take up arms to defend their property, a confrontation turns horribly sideways, Gustavo’s young son is killed — and Jackson Greer flees on horseback across the river and into Mexico, pursued not only by Gustavo among other outlaws but by the world-weary Texas Ranger named Ramirez (George Lopez, once again doing fine work in a dramatic role). Folks, what we have here is an old-fashioned Western taking place in modern times. (Jackson’s horse is even named Sundance.)

Director Allyn and cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramirez deliver striking and starkly beautiful visuals, and the ensemble cast does a fine job of creating fully dimensional characters; nobody is a hero, nobody is all bad. As we’re reminded time and again, if only these folks had a chance to know one another before the shooting started, maybe this escalating tragedy could have been avoided.

Jake Allyn plays a U.S. rancher who flees to Mexico after a fatal shooting in “No Man’s Land.”
IFC Films

But any lingering doubts about “No Man’s Land” trying too hard are erased when the overwrought, blood-spattered penultimate scene takes place in a church.

Right after a funeral.

• Just a few months after we saw Liam Neeson as a widowed Navy veteran trying to stay one step ahead of a bloodthirsty villain and his henchmen in “Honest Thief,” we get Liam Neeson as a widowed Marine combat veteran trying to stay one step ahead of a bloodthirsty villain and his henchmen in “The Marksman.” They’re equally mediocre efforts making B-movie use of Neeson’s particular set of skills as one of the great aging action heroes this side of Clint Eastwood.

In the case of “The Marksman,” nobody is “Taken” from Neeson’s Jim Hanson; this time around, he’s the one doing the taking! It’s a whole different thing, OK? Jim lives just down the road, cinematically and maybe even literally, from the Greers of “No Man’s Land,” and like the Greers, he’s having trouble keeping his ranch afloat — in Jim’s case, because his savings were wiped out by his wife’s medical bills. These days, Jim divides his time between looking for outside jobs, patrolling the border as some kind of volunteer with a walkie-talkie who calls in sightings of Mexicans crossing in to the United States — and getting hammered at night, leading to one of the most effective scenes in the movie, when Jim’s stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick), a Border Patrol agent, comes to his aid in a bar and takes him home to sleep it off.

When there’s a tragic shootout involving a border crossing, the ruthless drug cartel leader Maurico (Juan Pablo Raba) kills a young mother named Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), whose dying wish is for Jim to take her 11-year-son Miguel (Jacob Perez) to his only surviving family, in Chicago. Maurico’s brother was also killed in the confrontation, so when Jim sneaks Miguel out of the police station (he fears for Miguel’s life) and they head north to Illinois, Mauricio and his gunmen are in hot pursuit, often coming within shouting and shooting distance of Jim and Miguel. (At one point, as Jim and Miguel hide in the woods, Mauricio yells, “You killed my brother!” I guess to remind us that Jim killed his brother.)

Director/co-writer Robert Lorenz is big on American flags flapping in the breeze, but he makes it clear Jim isn’t a bigot, he’s just a guy who has always tried to do the right thing, and that right thing used to mean he would call in reports of “I.A.s” but now it means he’ll do everything within his power to protect an innocent little boy caught in the crossfire. Neeson and young Jacob Perez have a solid rapport together, but for a movie called “The Marksman,” we rarely Jim actually demonstrating his marksmanship, as we’re left with Neeson again doing extended, hand-to-hand combat with a much younger, cockier foe who has no idea what he’s up against.

While that stuff might be new to this guy, we’ve seen it all before.