Review by James Lindorf
It has been fourteen years since the now 69-year-old Liam Neeson first talked about a particular set of skills and cemented himself as an action star. In that time, he fought bad guys in deserts and on ice, fought them on planes and in trains, and fought them non-stop all night among the tombstones. Neeson’s recent action films have been a frequent source of the internet’s lampooning, but his latest film “Memory,” is a step above and one they hope you remember fondly. At the helm is Martin Campbell, best known for giving us possibly the best James Bond movie, 2006’s “Casino Royale.” In charge of adapting the 2003 Belgian thriller “Memory of a Killer” for American audiences was veteran TV writer Dario Scardapane who was last seen working on “The Punisher” series for Netflix. “Memory” Will be available in theaters nationwide beginning on April 29th.
This time around, Neeson is playing Alex Lewis, an assassin for a Mexico City-based crime syndicate. Alex lives like a ghost allowing him to have a long career with a reputation for discreet precision. A reputation that is getting harder to maintain as his memory fails, putting the finest details of his brutally efficient hits in jeopardy. With an eye on retirement, Alex receives an order that he cannot complete because it violates his very strict, very narrow code of ethics. If he wants to survive and protect his former target, he must quickly hunt down and kill the people who hired him before they and FBI agent Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce) find him first.
“Memory” is a mixed bag. The writing has a good heart and wants to tackle significant questions about morality and politics in American society. Unfortunately, I think Scardapane knows that these are hot-button topics and will garner interest, but he may be disinterested or still formalizing his opinions. The only clear conclusion is that sometimes rich white people can be a problem, but the how and why of it and what should be done about it is left for other films to discuss. Alex and Vincent are both the best-written and performed characters as two sides of the same coin. They are brash men haunted by their past and driven to pursue justice.
On the other end of the spectrum is Monica Bellucci as business mogul Davana Sealman and Harold Torres as Hugo Marquez, a Mexican police officer and part of Vincent’s task force to stop human trafficking at the border. Bellucci is here because she is a name and face that people recognize. If her character did any less, she wouldn’t exist. It is nice to see a woman viewed as untouchable because of her status and wealth because it is a role usually reserved for men, but that is the sole element in her favor. On the other hand, Torres has a lot to do. The problem is that he is incredibly inconsistent. He is extremely dedicated because his people are suffering. The contempt and violence are barely contained when bureaucracy gets in the way of his mission. When Alex is murdering the people he can’t arrest, instead of turning a blind eye, he is the most upset about what is happening. Even putting his relationship with Vincent in trouble, and that is before we get to his second and third personality shifts.
Three things move “Memory” into the top 3rd of Neeson’s action films: the performances of Neeson and Pearce, the cinematography, and the tone. It is easy to become bored or lazy when you work as much in a field as Neeson does, but that doesn’t happen here. Neeson is fully present and onboard with what Campbell asks Alex to do. Pearce is great because let’s face it when isn’t he? He adds a lot of dimension to Vincent, who is relatively one-note as written with just a few dropped lines to try and round out the second most important character.
When it comes to the film’s tone, it starts bleak and stays there. The deaths are brutal and often senseless. The cops are ineffectual at best and enablers at worst. The movie starts out dark and stays just submerged further into the darkness as the story progresses. It may become cliche or overly dour for some, but the world is often a terrible place, and nothing here is out of the realm of possibility. It is just a lot to have to going on at once.
Perhaps the biggest selling point for “Memory” is its cinematography. It has a lot more style than almost every old man action movie Neeson has done. They found a way to film Neeson in action scenes that still have too much editing, but it isn’t distractingly or laughably bad like it has been in the past. Then there is the standout visual scene with a man in a dimly lit and sparsely populated gym grinding away the middle-age spread on a treadmill. Outside on a moonless night with the rain pounding down, there is a hooded figure backlit by a pair of headlights armed with a silenced pistol. And just like that, with barely a hint of recognition and even less acknowledgment, the bearded man is dead. Crumpled on the floor with his headphones skittering around on the treadmill in his place. It is one of several scenes atypical to this style of film because they are unwilling to allow a moment to build, let alone linger.
“Memory” still has plenty of room for growth, but if you’ve ever enjoyed one of Neeson’s later action movies, then “Memory” is a must-watch. You can see the failures of “Memory,” you can also clearly see the adjustments needed to make it a great action movie, and it wouldn’t have taken that much. On its strengths, “Memory” earns a 3.5 out of 5.
Genre: Mystery & Thriller, Action
Director: Martin Campbell
Producer: Moshe Diamant, Sagiv Diamant, Michael Heimler, Rupert Maconick, Cathy Schulman, Arthur M. Sarkissian
Writer: Dario Scardapane
Runtime: 1h 54m