Based on the delightfully quirky 2003 Belgian film, The Memory of a Killer, MEMORY has the makings of a solid neo-noir. Alas, rather than a tight script to match its excellent visual acuity, MEMORY rambles too much before leading us down the familiar path of corruption in high places and the loss of innocence across the economic board.
Liam Neeson stars as Alex, a hitman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He sees the future all too clearly in the person of his older brother, currently soaking up the sun in a pre-vegetative state in a skilled care facility. Alex, while absent-minded, still has the chops for his chosen profession, as we see in a prologue during which he smoothly takes out a victim in a Mexican hospital. When he reports for his next assignment, he tells his handler (Lee Boardman) that he’s getting out of the game, but said handler sings the all-too familiar refrain about people like the never being able to retire.
Hence, Alex finds himself with two new contracts in El Paso. We will find out that they are related. The first is a high-flying businessman, who crossed the wrong people and is dispatched after the usual protests about this all being a big mistake. The second, however, gives Alex pause. That would be Beatriz (Mia Sanchez), a 13-year-old newly orphaned when the sting designed to catch her child-sex trafficking father goes wrong and he is killed by Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce) the undercover FBI agent attempting to get the evidence on papa.
For some reason, Alex was unaware of his target’s age, and when he sees her, he leaves the foster home in which she has been placed with all due stealth. Naturally, this causes problems that lead to a break with his handler, and also to his new mission to avenge the victims of traffickers like Beatriz’s father by tracking them down himself now that the official investigation has ended.
Eventually Alex shows up on Vincent’s radar. The trafficking case may be officially closed, but Vincent and his team, plucky Linda Amistead (Taj Atwal) and morally outraged Mexican police officer Hugo Marquez (Harold Torres), are not giving up. When Alex goes on his killing spree, they connect the dots, and the caliber of Alex’s gun, to their now defunct case, leading to a peculiar partnership in which Alex promises justice, which legal niceties have denied Vincent.
What ensues is the usual parade of the oversexed ultra-wealthy who believe themselves above the law, a short-sighted FBI supervisor (Ray Fearon) refusing to let Vincent continue the investigation, and cops who also believe themselves above the law when it comes to brutality. And at the heart of it, when we finally get there, is Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci), the imperiously amoral philanthropist who would like to live forever, if only to continue keeping her degenerate son (Josh Taylor) out of trouble.
There are hyperbolic stand-offs, random violence, and expository scenes designed to develop the characters. None of it works in this disjointed effort that confuses being high-minded with being inert, leaving Neeson’s anti-hero on a noble quest drawn with blurry lines and ragged tropes. It all comes across as archly contrived instead of richly atmospheric, the obvious correspondences with bad parenting and the beating of pigeon wings in an abandoned bakery notwithstanding.
Neeson, acknowledging his increasing years with a role about growing older, continues to maintain that odd credibility as an action star of a certain age. When he is teaching manners to a drunk in a bar, or ministering to a bullet hole in Alex’s abdomen with alcohol and a lighter, there is no one tougher even as Neeson barely breaks a sweat during the former and suffers magnificently through the latter. He also suffers magnificently in showing us Alex’s breaks with mental cognition when Alex questions the hooker (Stella Stocker) with a heart of gold about if he really was with her all night Even the less showy moments are good, including the nod to co-star Pearce’s role in MEMENTO that has Alex fretfully using a marker to inscribe useful information on his forearm, and updating it regularly.
Pearce, essaying a passable Texas accent and a frayed sort of world-weariness, gives Vincent the right simmering angst, though the script saddles his character with questionable decisions that make one wonder if an Alzheimer’s test of some sort is in order for him. In a better paced film, it would be less noticeable. As would the way so many characters are underwritten even with a surfeit of wordy exposition masquerading as dialogue.
Give MEMORY a ruthless edit and it might be a much better film. As it stands, it’s an unreasonable facsimile of hard-core noir, leaving us with yet another Liam Neeson film gamely going through the motions as our era’s most unlikely action star.