CASINO ROYALE director Martin Campbell delivers a solid Neeson vehicle
Memory, the latest tough guy Liam Neeson movie, starts with a promising concept: What does an assassin do when he can’t trust anyone, including himself? What follows is a twisted story of cops and killers that never achieves the dramatic and emotional depth it reaches for. Memory is a movie about a man who can’t afford to trust anyone and plays things close to the vest. This tactic also describes the film, for better and worse.
Memory is a remake of the Belgium film The Alzheimer Case based on Jef Geeraerts’ novel De Zaak Alzheimer. Neeson stars as Alex Lewis, an assassin in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. On his latest and potentially last job, Lewis discovers that one of his targets is a teenager. Unwilling to cross that ethical line, Lewis falls into the time-honored cliché of the Killing Machine with Morals. It’s the same line that many of cinema’s most ruthless, efficient, and skilled killers refuse to broach, and it’s meant to let audiences know that our killer is one of the good ones and, just maybe, it’s okay to give them our sympathy. Really, all this does is draw attention to the paradox of the Ethical Killer. The problem is that Memory isn’t interested in exploring the moral complexity of that premise and uses it merely as a jumping off point to pit Lewis against federal agents from the U.S. and Mexico.
Lewis, already a lone wolf by trade, is isolated further by the unreliability of his faltering mental state. To help himself, Lewis writes notes on his arm for quick reference. It’s a lower stakes version of the tattoo idea deployed in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, an easy comparison that’s tough to avoid, especially with the presence of Guy Pearce as one of the American agents after Lewis. As the movie progresses, Lewis’ trust in everything crumbles. Between second guessing himself and untangling double-crosses on both sides of the law and border, Lewis is caught in everyone’s crosshairs with precious few ways out.
One thing that doesn’t falter, however, is Lewis’ skill for killing. There aren’t big action set pieces here, with the screenplay and director Martin Campbell favoring quick, unflinching bursts of violence. Campbell and cinematographer David Tattersall present the bloody business in a way that’s stark and direct, which has a startling affect. Campbell is best known for large scale action films like Casino Royale, GoldenEye, and The Mask of Zorro, but his work here is more akin to what he delivered with the gritty Edge of Darkness. The film operates on a dramatic plateau, so these moments stand out by breaking up the monotony. It’s a tough spot for the film to be in, because if it goes too action-heavy with a protagonist with a slippery mind, it would venture too close to Bourne Identity territory. The subdued approach fits the character and film but lowers its ceiling. The premise wants to live in a moral grey area, but the presentation here is black and white. There’s never a doubt where the viewer’s loyalty should lie, and that ends up lessening the impact of the story’s reveals.
To the film’s credit, Neeson gives a compelling performance, conveying Lewis’ weariness and distrust. Lewis lives in a world where trust is in short supply, and can be deadly if given to the wrong person. A decade-plus after Liam Neeson Action Movies became its own genre, it would be understandable for complacency to set in. But, from what I’ve seen, Neeson continues to put in the effort.
Among a supporting cast featuring Pearce, Monica Bellucci, and Ray Stevenson, it’s Taj Atwal who stands out most. Atwal plays a tough talking agent, and she makes a meal out of the kind of dialogue that usually goes to a gruff, grizzly actor. She is a delight and gives her scenes, and the film as a whole, a much-needed spark.
Neeson and Campbell deliver a solid, if unremarkable, crime thriller. It’s the kind of mid-budget adult movie that people like to say isn’t made anymore, despite Neeson doing his best to dispel that notion. I tend to dip in and out of these Neeson action movies, but every time I check one out, my overriding feeling is that I’m glad these movies exist and somehow continue getting theatrical releases. Memory is like Ron Swanson’s bowling style—it plays everything straight down the middle and if it doesn’t knock all the pins down, no worries, there’s always next time.