'Memory' Review: Liam Neeson Has Alzheimer's, But Is Still Built For Revenge

Memory” opens with a grisly murder. Disguised in scrubs and a facemask, contract killer Alex Lewis (Liam Neeson, looking thinner and greyer than usual) walks into a hospital and garrottes a guy who’s visiting his ailing mamita. Alex is an old-timer, and he bumps off his targets with a perfunctory cool. But for all his muscle-tearing arm cranks and head-slamming combo moves, he really is too old for this shit, so much so that he has to write out his short-term memory on his forearm—names, places, phone, and hotel room numbers. Before he calls it quits, an old friend down in Mexico City convinces him to take one last job: a high-paying double hit in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. Alex ices his first target, Ellis Van Camp (Scot Williams)—the builder of El Paso’s Central Processing Facility (CPF), where undocumented immigrants are held; he also snatches a zip-lock bag of flash drives from Ellis’s safe, like his unknown hirer requested. But before he hands over the drives to the go-between, he looks at his next target: a 13-year-old girl named Beatriz Leon (Mia Sanchez) who has been pimped out by her father. Alex refuses to carry out the hit. When the girl winds up dead anyway, he looks at the content of the flash drives and uncovers a city-wide conspiracy headed by real estate mogul Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci). Alex hunts her down, but a crack FBI team made up of Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce), Linda Amistead (Taj Atwal), and Hugo Marquez (Harold Torres) are hot on his trail, and they eat dei ex machina for breakfast.

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“Memory” is a remake of the 2003 Belgian film “De zaak Alzheimer,” but with Pearce’s casting and the promo’s lauding of the script as “exceptional high-concept,” director Martin Campbell and the studio are really urging audiences to compare “Memory” to Christopher Nolan’s 2000 thriller “Memento” (starring Pearce as an avenging amnesiac). This is a bad idea. The plot of “Memento”—which forms a pleasing two-tone ellipse when you draw it out—was bewilderingly intricate and gorgeously slick for a compact 113 minutes. Dario Scardapane’s script for “Memory,” on the other hand, is linear, lacking mystery, and only lightly peppered with forgetfulness; it seems like the sort of thing Nolan would cook up—and then dismiss—while putting his socks on in the morning. What’s more, no attempt has been made, either by Campbell or the production designers or cinematographer David Tattersall (“Star Wars Episodes I-III”; he also put the ‘green’ in “The Green Mile”), to disorient the audience (like the scenery-switching in “The Father”) or to make us question what is real and what has been misremembered by Alex (like “Memento” or “Unknown”). Instead, Neeson occasionally shuts down into a somnambulistic deadpan, stuttering and slurring his words; but it’s hard to forget that 5 minutes earlier he was outsmarting a savvy crime syndicate and bouncing guys’ heads off side view mirrors.

The film’s big action set piece—a shootout between Alex and Beatriz’s killer in a parking garage—is a lot more vanilla than you might expect from the director of “Casino Royale” and “GoldenEye.” The silenced guns don’t give off the bang you’d hoped for, and Neeson’s slow walk away from an exploding car is more blasé than jaw-dropping. During the brawl, an innocent named Maya (Stella Stocker) takes a bullet to the neck, and the whole thing leaves you wondering why she was introduced in the first place; Neeson steps in when she’s harassed at a bar, then she sleeps with him, and then she’s taken out. You soon learn that she’s just one of many slapdash expendables who are put in to fill out around Neeson and his indomitable bad guy-bashing prowess. (Maya is only slightly more hollow than Ray Fearon’s FBI chief, whose only role is to be the dismissive bureaucratic cog that refuses to turn.)

Bellucci smolders as the untouchable mogul who dreams of eternal life. When her doctor jokingly tells her that at this rate she’ll live to be 130, she puts in a counter-offer: “I’ll give you $5 million to make it 135.” A sedentary villain, Bellucci never once leaves the comfort of her glass-walled El Paso office; given her interest in becoming a centenarian, you wonder if Scardapane hasn’t just written a sexier version of Mr Burns. Until Neeson comes knocking, she spends her time getting her blood pressure checked and bemoaning the dopes she sent to chase after the flash drives which threaten to make known her complicity in a sex trafficking ring run through the CPF. She’s an alluring corporate queen, but the scope of her power—limited, it seems, to reproaching her henchman and blackmailing her incompetent friends—never approaches Neeson’s action-God omnipotence.

Slightly more ho-hum are the supporting performances by Atwal and Torres as Pearce’s younger, bright-eyed sidekicks. They go about their work with a neophytic spark and innocence, like Pearce’s Edmund Exley from “L.A. Confidential” but with even more TV-sheen; given the right breakthrough, you think they might start high-fiving each other. Their tragic backstories, however, are a little thin; Atwal’s Linda doesn’t really have one, and Torres’ Hugo briefly mentions a gruesome case he once worked down in Juarez, but his trauma is quickly forgotten. (That is, until the film’s dénouement, which does complete Hugo’s arc, but in a way that’s about as moronic and contrived as the big reveal in Neeson’s “Non-Stop,” in which two guys hijack and blow up a plane full of Americans—in the most elaborate way possible—to prove to Americans that they aren’t safe from terrorists.) Next to Pearce, though, Atwal and Torres really don’t stand a chance. Pearce is too good for his run-of-the-mill ‘good cop in a bad town’ role, and he’s so naturally expressive that when he finally reveals that his wife and child were killed by a drunk driver on the I-8, our only response is, Well, yeah: Pearce said it already with his eyes. Sporting a crescent mustache, thick sideburns, and grease-slicked hair, he looks like Llewelyn Moss (and he’s got the tucked plaid shirt to prove it), although his world-weary tone is much more Sheriff Bell. It’s the sort of doyen cynicism and laconic cowboy wisdom that would make the Coens or Curtis Hanson or Michael Mann grin from ear to ear.

“Memory” is probably not the last of the Neeson shoot-’em-up pictures (his previous one, “Blacklight,” came out in February, so if anything he’s ramping things up), which is a shame because Neeson has more and more of a late-Burt Reynolds air about him these days—as though all he needs to do is show his face, growl curmudgeonly, and mete out life and death with a questionable moral sense and then that’s a wrap. Occasionally it comes out with a neat, Robert Harris-y finesse (like in “Unknown”), but more often than not it lapses into a kind of hoary self-referentiality (in “Memory” you sometimes wonder if Alex isn’t just mixing up names because he thinks he’s in “that other Neeson film”). We’re a dozen action thrillers deep now, and you start to wonder: is Neeson really making these for us anymore? [D+]