Memory hits theaters on April 29, 2022.
I know what you’re thinking – Liam Neeson in yet another old man action flick. But Memory does bring something new to the table, at least: Alex Lewis (Neeson) is a hitman on the verge of retirement. But he’s hiding a terrible secret, and it’s not a government conspiracy or a trail of bodies in his wake. No, Alex has Alzheimer’s and it’s affecting his work in a big way. While Memory has a strong premise that suggests a whole new take on the action-thriller genre, it’s sadly let down by an uninspired and fairly standard storyline.
Essentially, Memory is a bog-standard action flick with a few fresh ideas thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, director Martin Campbell doesn’t quite stick the landing, with the most interesting aspects of the film feeling wildly underdeveloped.
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Take Alex’s Alzheimer’s, example. It’s not often you see a hitman grappling with the onset of a degenerative disease, and the little moments that show how it’s affecting him are some of the best in the movie. Neeson is remarkably subtle as he struggles with the memory loss, the slowing of fine motor skills, and the loss of judgment that are all early signposts for Alzheimer’s Disease.
However, often memory feels like a missed opportunity. Although we watch Neeson struggle through some excruciatingly tense scenes, we don’t really feel what it’s like in Alex’s shoes. There’s plenty of opportunity to visualize Alex’s faltering memory in a unique and interesting way – Eternal Sunshine-style disappearing memories would have brought us closer to the man himself, just as seeing the world through his eyes would give us perspective on his condition as well as his plight.
Instead, we experience Alex’s traumatic second hand. At various points throughout the film, he loses grip on what’s going on, often prompting him to angrily demand to know what’s happening or whimper with terrified shock at a predicament he had no idea he was in. Ironically, Neeson portrays the pain and suffering of a degenerative condition with finesse, vacillating seamlessly between seasoned contract killer and vulnerable Alzheimer’s patient. It just feels as though it could have gone a lot deeper, and as a result, it only touches the surface of what it could’ve been.
That said, Memory has some interesting style choices – especially when it comes to the way Campbell framed the action scenes. They’re often choppy, quick cut, and highly edited. At first glance, it’s another stylish way to depict frenzied, frenetic action, but it’s more than that. It’s also a neat way to approach the retiring hitman’s patchy memory by not quite showing the full sequence of events. But this, too, is sparse and underutilised.
Based on the novel De zaak Alzheimer’s by Jef Geeraerts, Memory trades the book’s very European setting for a Latin American twist, putting the action in El Paso, Texas. It works, too, with Alex now fighting to uncover a Mexican child prostitution ring with FBI agent Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce) as an unwitting aid. There are distinct shades of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario In the way the story unfolds, and it would be easy to draw comparisons between Neeson’s ageing hitman and Benicio del Toro’s former Mexican prosecutor-turned-assassin. But it’s just that – shades. Memory is nowhere near as dark or complex, with a tendency to only delve a deep surface.
Similarly, Guy Pearce’s world-weary FBI agent is almost a caricature rather than a real, warts and all portrayal of a man on the job. Pearce gets some great one-liners about how difficult it all is, with an interesting backstory that’s merely hinted at. But his character, too, is relatively underdeveloped. It’s a shame – something about this dynamic brings to mind the Luc Besson classic, Leon… but perhaps it’s just Pearce’s dodgy moustache.
Either way, there’s a lot going on underneath the surface. It’s just a shame we never really get to it.
Altogether, Memory is a surprisingly straightforward action-thriller that doesn’t quite live up to its prime. That’s a real shame, too. The twist on the tried-and-true formula is interesting enough to warrant a deeper exploration of memory and perception when it comes to such a violent profession. Sadly, it seems Campbell isn’t up to the task, stopping a bit short of making any poignant or even interesting observations. Instead, memory means between rote action flick and not-quite-interesting-enough conspiracy thriller. It’s too bad that Memory is so unambitious; if it had only leaned into its intriguing premise more, it could’ve been much more than a rote action flick.
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