Forgettable and unforgivable
Thriller’s novel premise — a hitman with dementia — squandered on fomulaic action film
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Here’s a movie with a positive message: This action thriller believes a person diagnosed with dementia can continue to lead a meaningful life.
The followup to this message is tricky, however. For Alex Lewis (Liam Neeson, looking especially craggy), who is dealing with rapidly worsening loss of memory, his life up to now has involved killing people for money.
Based on the 2003 Belgian film De zaak Alzheimer (The Alzheimer Case), Memory’s high-concept premise — a hitman with dementia — is certainly novel. Everything else, unfortunately, is completely formulaic, starting with the notion that our protagonist is the ever-clichéd “hitman with a code.”
“You’re sensitive. You’re an artist,” a criminal colleague tells Alex. After we’ve seen him “artistically” garrote a bad guy in front of the bad guy’s sick mother, we learn his code basically means he doesn’t kill children.
This becomes a sticking point when Alex is hired by a shadowy organization to take out two targets in El Paso, Texas, the first a scuzzy fixer who holds some nasty secrets but the second an innocent 13-year-old girl named Beatriz (Mia Sanchez). Beatriz is a victim of sexual trafficking whose testimony could bring down a ring of pedophiles that the police and the FBI have been unable to nail down, their cases always evaporating when they get too close to the top.
Soon Alex is working against his former employers, making for an unusual alliance with dogged federal agent Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce, who had his own memory issues in Memento). They’re on different sides of the law, but they’re both looking for justice.
Director Martin Campbell, who helmed Casino Royale, one of the best Bond films ever, seems to have completely lost his touch here, with Memory coming off like a generic ’90s action flick, with formulaic chase and fight scenes and flat, oddly flimsy settings and characters.
Scripter Dario Scardapane (a TV writer making his feature-film debut) also flails around, and the result is a tonal mess.
As caregivers know, people with memory issues can have good days and bad days, and Alex is no different. On his bad days, it’s hard for him to make a quick post-murder getaway because he can’t find his keys. On his good days, he’s able to take out complex security systems, infiltrate a building swarming with law enforcement and cauterize his own abdominal bullet wounds.
Memory is not meant to be a medical documentary, of course. But if you’re going to be totally unrealistic, maybe play Alex’s memory issues as dark, poignant human comedy. Instead, we get a lot of unintentional hilarity.
And what do we make of our lead, who can be super-competent and omnipotent one moment, and faltering and vulnerable the next? Is this a positive, progressive expression of anti-ageism, or is it just Hollywood’s same-old, same-old — a doubled-down assertion that old white guys are still relevant, powerful and able to bed beautiful young women? Mostly it’s the latter.
That’s too bad because the 69-year-old Neeson can be interesting to watch, through all his range of feeling. Unlike some actors, who start out as action heroes and then try to make a midlife transition into serious dramatic roles, Neeson started out doing serious dramatic roles and then after 2008’s Taken — where he showcased his “particular set of skills” — became an unlikely late-in-life action man. He has since specialized in playing dangerous guys pulled out of retirement to right wrongs. (This is actually Neeson’s second “Nees-ploitation” movie of 2022, following February’s Blacklight.)
One genuinely moving scene, in which Alex visits with his brother, who has much more advanced Alzheimer’s, suggests what Neeson could have done if given a bit more to work with. Sadly, the rest of the movie is, well, unmemorable.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.