There are some pretty clear signs that Liam Neeson’s ‘action hero’ brand may be running out of steam. Look no further than “Blacklight” from earlier this year. It was a case of both Neeson and his formula showing their age. The movie was (to put it kindly) a slog and didn’t even make back half of its $43 million production budget. What’s sad is that Neeson is a good dramatic actor (just check out 2019’s underseen “Ordinary Love” for a more recent reminder). But this leg of his onscreen journey may be winding down.
Yet it has been only two months since “Blacklight” and now we have yet another Neeson action thriller. This one’s called “Memory” and despite everything I just said, it actually gave me reasons to be optimistic. First, it’s directed by Martin Campbell, the man behind one of very favorite Bond movies, “Casino Royale” (yes, I know he also did “Green Lantern” but set that one aside for a moment). Second, it sports a compelling supporting cast led by Guy Pearce and Monica Bellucci.
And then there’s the story. Yes, “Memory” uses several of the same tropes associated with most other Neeson flicks. But this one has an interesting twist. The script (written by Dario Scardapane) is based on a 1985 novel by Jef Geeraerts called “De zaak Alzheimer”. It also borrows from a 2003 Beligian big screen adaptation of Geeraerts’ book called “The Alzheimer Case”. The story centers on a seasoned contract killer and his early stage dementia. That alone brings the level of humanity Neeson’s last film desperately needed.
As it turns out, “Memory” does play differently than most from Neeson’s catalog. Interestingly, while Neeson is the star, nearly as much time is spent with Pearce who plays an FBI Agent trying to make sense of the dead bodies suddenly turning up across his city. His side of the story is mostly a crime procedural. And as you can probably guess, his investigation inevitably puts him on the trail of a cognitively impaired hitman who still possesses “a particular set of skills”.
Neeson plays Alex Lewis, an aging assassin who fulfills contracts for a number of high-paying criminal organizations. The opening scene set in Guadalajara, Mexico shows that he is still more than capable of doing his job. But he’s been having memory lapses, which is the last thing you want in such a detail-oriented profession. For that reason he’s ready to get out of the game. But back in El Paso, Alex is quickly reminded by one of his employers that this isn’t a line of work you can just walk away from.
Later Alex is given another contract. But when the target turns out to be a 13-year-old girl named Beatriz (Mia Sanchez), he refuses the job. “I don’t hurt children…ever”, he growls (you gotta love an assassin with principles). It turns out that Beatriz is a key witness in a drug trafficking case being put together by federal agent Vincent Serra (Pearce, brandishing one bad mustache and an even worse haircut).
As expected, Alex’s employers don’t take kindly to his insubordination, and Alex doesn’t take kindly to their attempts at killing him for it. Soon the corpses are stacking up as Alex offers payback to the baddies who put him on their hit list. And he quickly learns that there are some powerful people calling the shots, tops being a prominent real estate mogul named Davana Sealman (Bellucci). But Alex’s memory loss makes him sloppy, and soon both Sealman and Serra are hot on his trail.
As the story unfolds, Campbell is given several narrative threads to tie together. Along the way he tackles a number of themes with varying degrees of success. The movie hits on several things including America’s leaky justice system, our government’s inept handling of the southern border, child sex trafficking, and of course late age dementia. That last one is the trickiest, but thankfully the movie treats it with the dignity and respect it needs. And Neeson’s portrayal is tempered and subdued, never exaggerating Alex’s deteriorating condition or overplaying it.
As far as the performances, Neeson and Pearce get the bulk of the work and both manage the sometimes shaky material well. Bellucci has a strong presence, but sadly she isn’t given much to do. After them, the performances take a pretty big dive which only accentuates the stock character feel of many of the supporting players. Some elements of the story play the same way – like beats we’ve seen in countless other movies and television shows. But give Campbell some credit. He brings some much-needed drama and grit to a pretty familiar formula. Who knows, maybe there’s still a little life left in these Neeson brand movies. “Memory” is now playing in theaters.