‘Marlowe’ Review: Liam Neeson in Neil Jordan’s Tired Raymond Chandler Reboot
Legendary characters don’t die. They keep getting reinvented. If they exist in fiction, new authors come along to create new adventures for them. And if they exist onscreen, you can bet that a remake or reboot will come along every generation or so in hopes of recapturing that lightning in a bottle.
And often both happens, as is the case with Philip Marlowe, the iconic hard-boiled detective invented by Raymond Chandler and portrayed onscreen over the decades by actors including Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, Elliott Gould, Robert Mitchum and probably others I’ve forgotten.
The Bottom Line
Forget it, Jake, it’s not ‘Chinatown.’
The latest tough guy actor to don the fedora is Liam Neeson, in director Neil Jordan’s new film based on a 2014 novel by John Banville, writing under the name Benjamin Black. Suffice it to say that the results won’t erase anyone’s memories of The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye. Sticking to film noir traditions to a fault (minus the black & white), Marlowe feels mostly like cinematic karaoke.
It’s not surprising that this effort taking place in Los Angeles in the late 1930s would hew so carefully to nostalgia. The last really good Marlowe movie, 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely (starring Mitchum, who, in my estimation, best embodied the role), came out nearly half a century ago. It’s safe to say that the majority of the intended audience is well into renewing their AARP subscriptions.
As is Neeson, who at 70 is certainly the oldest actor to play the part. To his credit, the veteran actor, his hair dyed an unflattering brown, acknowledges the fact. Right after quickly dispatching a bad guy half his age, his Marlowe mutters, “I’m getting too old for this,” a sentiment that the actor’s agent would probably dispute.
The film begins with the requisite beautiful woman, Clare Cavendish, walking into Marlowe’s office and hiring him to find her former lover. She’s played by Diane Kruger, who was born to play femme fatales (she recently filled a similar bill in Out of the Blue, Neil LaBute’s misbegotten stab at the genre). His search leads the world-weary private eye into a typically convoluted narrative involving a variety of shady characters, including a menacing Hollywood studio head played by Danny Huston, whose appearance inevitably brings to mind his legendary father John Huston’s similar role in 1974’s Chinatowna far more imaginative homage to the genre.
There’s also a sleazy nightclub owner (is there any other kind?) played by Alan Cumming, clearly relishing the opportunity to employ a molasses-thick Southern accent and utter such lines as “down in the land of the sombrero, the serape and the mule. ” when referring to Mexico. I don’t know whether the line comes from the novel or was created by screenwriter William Monahan, but if it’s the latter it represents a comedown from his Oscar-winning work on The Departed. Although you have to give him credit for managing to work in references to James Joyce, Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Styleand that other Marlowe, Christopher.
The other supporting characters, who generate the feeling of figures on a Marlowe-themed board game, include the client’s mother, a jaded Hollywood star (a terrific Jessica Lange, also no stranger to the genre); a couple of Marlowe’s former police colleagues (a colorful Colm Meaney and Ian Hart); and a soft-spoken chauffeur not to be trifled with (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, nearly stealing the picture).
Neeson’s imposing physicality and natural gravitas gives the character a suitable authority, with his advanced years adding a not-unwelcome vulnerability. He certainly wears the fedora and wool suits well, and his oft-repeated phrase “Fair enough” when dealing with difficult situations conveys an interesting air of resignation.
There are frequent sly references to past private eye films, including Marlowe interviewing a minor movie actress wearing make-up making it look like her eye has been shot out just like Faye Dunaway’s in Chinatown. Marlowe certainly has the visual feel of many of its inspirations, with its vintage architecture (Barcelona filled in for 1930’s LA), handsome period costumes, and a plethora of scenes featuring horizontal shadows created by window blinds. There’s also a lot of cigarette-smoking onscreen, the filmmakers are not trying to pretend that everyone back then wasn’t in the process of destroying their lungs.
But for all the authentic genre tropes on display, Marlowe never comes to life on its own, lacking the verve or wit to make it feel anything other than a great pop song played by a mediocre cover band.
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