Synopsis – In late 1930’s Bay City, a brooding, down on his luck detective is hired to find the ex-lover of a glamorous heiress.
My Take – For a career spanning decades, Liam Neeson has well built up a reputation of a strong capable actor with many committed performances over the years. Which even saw the Northern Irish actor suddenly sprung to global stardom following his role in Taken (2008), turning him into one of the most unlikely action stars around.
A career move which gave him a true taste of box office success and allowed him to play almost the same character in solo ventures, with little variations and without the need to invest too deeply, all adhering to the hit and miss familiar popcorn entertainment formula.
For his 100th film, the 70 years old moves back into the space of his earlier films as he takes on the role of Philip Marlowe, the iconic Private Investigator created by author Raymond Chandler in the 1930s. A character who has appeared in a number of film adaptations, and has been portrayed by numerous actors, like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, and Elliott Gould. Sadly, in similar vein to his last few pair of incomprehensible messes, this one too wastes his incredible talent with an exception.
An adaptation of 2014’s The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black, the film isn’t particular terrible, just arch, over the top and all genre tropes and clichés. Though writer-director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire) and co-writer William Monahan (The Departed, Body of Lies), are obviously influenced by the great noir films, they waste the entire talented cast and skilled production design crew on a woefully by-the-numbers crime story that is frustratingly clumsy in how it delivers information to the audience.
Sure, the performances and the sleek look keeps the film reasonably watchable, but they spend more time trying to simulate a noir experience than actually delivering one, unfortunately losing steam by the end as they attempt to put all the pieces together, presenting little in the way of mystery or malice. One can’t help noticing how much it pales in comparison to the features it so desperately wants to emulate.
Set in and around 1939 Bay City, Los Angeles, the story follows Philip Marlowe (Liam Neeson), a WWI vet who worked briefly for the Los Angeles Police as a detective but now operates privately. His latest case sees him being hired by Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), a married blonde, who wants Marlowe to find Nico Peterson (François Arnaud), her lover who worked as a prop artist at a film studio owned by her very wealthy mother and former film star, Dorothy Quincannon (Jessica Lange).
The catch being that Nico has been declared dead after being in an hit-and-run accident outside an exclusive private club and his body has been identified by his sister, Lynn Peterson (Daniela Melchior). However, Clare is convinced that he is alive and is in hiding, fearing his safety. And when Marlowe starts investigating the disappearance he unearths a web of lies, and finds himself involved in a dangerous, deadly conspiracy with ties to the manager of the private club, Floyd Hanson (Danny Huston), and a local gangster, Lou Hendricks (Alan Cumming).
The film certainly looks the part from top to bottom. From its look, to its sound, to its dialog, the authenticity is there as it feels like a crime noir. And it has all the things you would expect from a film noir – a hard boiled gumshoe protagonist, a femme fatale, a lot of vintage cars and old school guns, and a plot that can be difficult to follow. Several of these elements are quite good. The production design is similarly pleasing. Costumes, sets, and locations appear appropriately vintage.
Here, director Neil Jordan tries to craft an engaging chess game of personalities and locations, but it all feels very thin, and writer William Monahan’s attempt to deliver snappy dialogue often stumbles. And, the closest the story gets to the end of the case, the film begins to lose steam. The film biggest downfall is its plot.
The mystery both comes together and falls apart at the same time. The story meanders all over the place, never quite making it clear how the various players and situations fit together. By the end, you’re likely to have a question or two left unanswered, as the motives of the principal players remain hazy. There are few surprises or misdirects or red herrings involved with this all-too-solvable mystery, let alone subtext or commentary.
Pacing is another issue. A good detective story keeps you on the edge of your seat, eagerly anticipating each new clue. Director Neil Jordan takes an unusually low-key approach, staging scenes with a leisurely flow that prevents the film from achieving momentum. Lack of juice is an even bigger detriment than the muddled plot is. Overlooking the parts that don’t add up would be easier if there was a little snap to the proceedings. Resulting in a head-scratching affair that cannot be saved by director Jordan’s decision to recreate ‘30s L.A. in Barcelona.
Ultimately, the only thing that work here is Liam Neeson’s performance as the titular detective. An arguably different performance than his countless previous action offerings, he fit as the grizzled and understated detective because that may be all he can do at this point. However, Neeson still does it well as his gravitas and presence seals it.
He is also well supported by a couple of decent performances from Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, Colm Meaney, Danny Huston, Alan Cumming, François Arnaud, Ian Hart, Daniela Melchior and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. On the whole, ‘Marlowe’ is a muddled neo-noir crime thriller that isn’t able to rise above its tropes.
Directed – Neil Jordan
Starring – Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange
Rated – R
Run Time – 109 minutes