Review: Memory — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

You’re never wasting your time when you spend it with Liam Neeson.

Memory scene
STX Entertainment

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Memory

⭐⭐⭐

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

Stars: Liam Neeson, Guy Pearce, Monica Bellucci

Writer: Dario Scardapane (based on a screenplay by Carl Joos)

Director: Martin Campbell

 

I think I’ve figured out Liam Neeson’s late-career strategy: He cranks out schlocky action flicks like a stadium vendor slinging peanuts to the crowd. Then, once a year or so, he redeems his reputation with a prestige project that reminds us he’s one of the truly great screen actors of his generation.

It’s easy to spot Neeson’s Peanut Gallery movies: Just look for him on the poster, jaw tight, eyes narrowed, wielding a firearm. His latest film, Memory, finds Neeson in full B-picture mode, and as long as you’re willing to accept that, it’s a pretty good ride.

Neeson is never bad in a film, and he’s always careful never to make a truly awful movie, either.

Plus, Memory has an intriguing premise: Alex Lewis is a world-class assassin who as of late has had to scribble important facts (whom to kill; where to kill them) on his forearm. We learn why when Alex visits a nursing home: His brother is virtually catatonic from Alzheimer’s, and Alex knows he is well on his way to a similar fate (The siblings’ one-way encounter is Neeson’s one opportunity in the film to take a deep breath and act, the only moment when we feel we are glimpsing the lives of living, breathing people).

Alex may be a cold-blooded killer, but in the best movie tradition, he’s a good cold-blooded killer: His code of conduct dictates that he only shoots bad guys. When his current employer orders him to murder a 13-year-old girl, he balks. That puts Alex in double jeopardy; he’s now on the run from both his angry employer (Monica Bellucci of The Matrix) and an FBI agent (Guy Pearce) who is also closing in on him.

A smarter film would have found a way to entwine Alex’s twin battles: the life-or-death one against his pursuers and the quieter one against his relentlessly deteriorating memory. Instead, writer Dario Scardapane (TV’s The Punisher) simply plops the guy into a plot which progresses with scant reference to his condition. As a result, when Alex’s memory loss finally causes a critical misstep late in the game, it plays less like a catastrophic systemic error than an inopportune moment of senior forgetfulness.

Lots of times, when a big star makes a throwaway actioner like Memory, they’re doing it as a favor for some up-and-coming director looking for a big break. But this is no B-team at work: Director Martin Campbell made Daniel Craig’s game-changing 007 flick Casino Royale and cinematographer David Tattersall shot The Green Mile and two Star Wars movies.

With creds like that, Memory can’t help but be a handsome film. Indeed, it is every bit as stylish as the 2003 Belgian movie on which it’s quite faithfully based, Memory of a Killer. But that film, starring a decidedly haggard Jan Decleir, more successfully infuses the hitman’s Alzheimer’s into the plot, intensifying his periodic confusion as those adversaries close in on him.

You’re never wasting your time when you spend it with Liam Neeson (nor with Guy Pearce, who starred in the granddaddy of memory-based thrillers, Memento). Strong performances and classy production go a long way to keeping Memory from being forgettable.

Let’s see, what’s next for Liam? Ah, he just finished Retribution, playing a businessman who’s driving his kids to school when he learns if he stops the car, they’ll all blow up. According to my theory, that means he’ll then owe us a top-shelf movie, and wouldn’t you know, he’ll be stepping into a role he was born to play: Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, directed by Oscar winner Neil Jordan.

Right on schedule.

Featured image: STX Entertainment

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