Memory is in some ways the perfect film for Liam Neeson and director Martin Campbell. Neeson has been the chief purveyor of “old man action movies” since Taken in 2008, while Campbell is the director behind two James Bond films and last year’s solid assassin movie, The Protege. With Memory, they can take stock of their chosen genres, and what it would be like for a hitman after years of bloody and brutal work. What kind of impact does that have on a killer’s psyche? And what happens when the memories of being the “bad guy” begin to slip away?
The premise of Memory finds Neeson as Alex Lewis, a top killer who is beginning to suffer the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
“I’m the bad man. I have been for a long time”, Alex laments.
Now, Alex’s faith in his choices in the moment have also given way to resentment of his choices over a lifetime. Having a change of heart when it comes to killing 13-year-old Beatriz (Mia Sanchez), Alex sets out to make things right even though it puts him in the crosshairs of some dangerous people, including a villainous kingpin (Monica Bellucci) and her psychotic family.
While Alex may have lost faith in his skills, they don’t seem to have diminished much. For the most part, Alex is your typical Liam Neeson action hero. Alex easily dispatches his employers who want the girl dead, even dooming one to a car bomb originally meant for himself. Not to say that Alex is invincible, but he kicks ass like the Neeson we’re used to, only with a little more regret and confusion. The actual Alzheimer’s angle doesn’t play out as deeply as it could, in favor of giving Neeson fans the movie they no doubt have paid to see.
What Memory does is give Neeson a slightly meatier role than these films tend to offer. Not that Neeson has slid down the Mel Gibson/Bruce Willis path, but he makes A LOT of these action-thrillers each year and he often slides into familiar patterns. Here, he’s more vulnerable, more haunted, making for one of the better Neeson performances in recent years.
Joining Neeson in the cast is the always-reliable Guy Pearce as FBI agent Vincent Serra, who follows the trail of broken bodies left in Alex’s wake. When the situation grows to become a larger issue about sex trafficking on the Texas/Mexico border (although shot mainly in Bulgaria!), the two become reluctant allies operating on different sides of the law, with both men sharing regrets that they could’ve been a little more like the other. It’s an interesting dynamic, if a bit shallow like too much of the film turns out to be. Screenwrite Dario Scardapane, in remaking Belgian thriller The Alzheimer’s Case (itself based on the Jeff Geeraerts novel), doesn’t make the most use of a rich, illicit tapestry of child sex rings, illegal immigration, and political corruption.
Neeson and Pearce cross paths sparingly, which is a shame. We see even less of them with Bellucci. That said, when Neeson and Pearce do share the screen, like in a tense confrontation in the final act where one is at his most exposed, both men modulate their performances perfectly. Campbell, always a steady hand behind the camera, plays the tension and impending violence with the respect it deserves. Memory isn’t a flashy film by any means; it’s an efficient, mature thriller that will do the job for those in need of their Neeson fix. For everyone else, it’ll likely fade from memory.
Memory opens in theaters on April 29th.