For his 100th career role, Liam Neeson slips into the shoes of hardboiled gumshoe Philip Marlowe in Neil Jordan’s sluggish, sleepy mystery, Marlowe. Neeson isn’t the most obvious choice for the role, but he’s not that much different than Humphrey Bogart or Elliot Gould, who preceded him and made the character famous on the big screen. It’s just that, even at his advanced age, or perhaps because of it given his late-stage-career turn to action, Neeson could be doing much better than this dull, plodding attempt at film noir that doesn’t play to Jordan’s strengths, either.
It would be one thing if the story were based on a Raymond Chandler classic. But instead, Marlowe is adapted from John Banville’s 2014 book The Black-Eyed Blonde, which features one of the less compelling cases in the erstwhile detective’s storied career. Adapted by William Monahan, the story finds Marlowe approached by the mysterious Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) to find her former lover, Nico Peterson (Francois Arnaud), who has suddenly gone missing and is presumed dead after an incident in front of a Hollywood movie studio.
The close proximity to show business leads Marlowe deep into the seedier side of Hollywood, politics, and more, unearthing a vast conspiracy that threatens to engulf the detective. Meanwhile, he must also navigate the shady agendas of Clare’s mother Dorthy Cavendish, a studio big shot (Danny Huston), and even a nightclub owner (Alan Cumming).
Your classic film noir heroes tend to be common everyman figures; regular joes with a deeply-held moral code but no real agenda. Marlowe takes this idea too far, as Marlowe seems to have no personality at all, no drive other than to solve the case. Neeson gets in a couple of decent, too-brief scraps, but he’s always better when playing characters who are fueled by something larger than themselves. Kruger adapts to the genre better than everyone, perhaps because she’s played so many beautiful, enigmatic femme fatale characters.
Jordan has often adopted the style of film noir in service of more fantastical efforts. His 2012 vampire film Byzantium is a prime example. But in taking on the genre directly, Jordan’s undercooked effort feels like a film trying to be something that it’s not. The cinematography captues the look and even some of the imagery of classic film noir, but none of the personality. And the score is nothing to write home about, either.
While the mystery crime-thriller are all the rage again, it doesn’t take a detective to see that Marlowe is too old fashioned, too dull to be part of that renaissance.
Marlowe is in theaters now.