Memory (R) ★★★

Review Date: April 28th, 2022

Sitting down to watch Memory, I was prepared for yet another Liam Neeson-As-Righteous-Avenger movie (the kind of thing that has inexplicably become his bread-and-butter since the success of Taken). Much to my surprise, however, Neeson and director Martin Campbell (whose uneven resume includes Casino Royale and Green Lantern, among others) have pulled a bait-and-switch. What initially looks like "just another opportunity for Neeson to kick ass" turns into something more ambiguous and less conventional. Memory uses our expectations to generate twists that might not have existed with a different lead actor.

Neeson plays Alex Lewis, a top-of-the-line assassin whose services have long been in demand by crime syndicates and cartels north and south of the Texas/Mexico border. Afflicted by growing signs of Alzheimer's, Alex has decided to retire but he is persuaded to take one last case. There are two victims and, after killing the first one, he discovers that the second is a child. Since the murder of children violates a personal code of honor, he abrogates the contract, which makes him a target. Since the once-precise hitman has left evidence at the scene, he is soon hunted by a pair of FBI agents - Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce) and Linda Amistead (Taj Atwal) - as well as a Mexican officer, Hugo Marquez (Harold Torres), who is working with them. Alex makes the decision to go after the head honcho who ordered the girl's death - not an easy task since Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci) is a powerful woman with many lawmen in her pocket, including Detective Danny Mora (Ray Stevenson), who is in a turf war with the FBI. Alex soon finds himself on the run from almost everyone - cops and criminals - and discovers that his one ally may be someone he would have least suspected.

There are three things that make Memory atypical in the Neeson Crime Thriller library. (1) The lead character isn't "a good person at heart." Alex is a stone-cold killer who, aside from his personal twisted code, is a thug. (2) The incorporation of the Alzheimer's element makes the cat-and-mouse game far more interesting because it limits the capabilities of the alpha predator. (3) The movie is rated R. Although Neeson's efforts in the genre have occasionally strayed into this territory, the vast majority are PG-13. Allowing Memory to have an R-rating permits a grittier approach.

There are some narrative issues - this is by no means a tight screenplay. The most obvious of these is the rapidity with which Alex's disease progresses. Those who have been around Alzheimer's patients know that it follows a slow, steady trajectory. In Memory, it has been sped up considerably. When the film begins, Alex is only beginning to experience lapses (he momentarily can't find the keys to a getaway vehicle). By the end, his competency has been seriously compromised. Not a lot of time elapses in the interim.

Memory is a remake of a 2003 Belgian thriller called The Alzheimer Case, which was in turn based on a novel by Jef Geeraerts. Most of the changes employed for the American version are cosmetic, although the shift from Europe to the Texas/Mexico border allows the screenplay to focus on the tension that exists between U.S. and Mexican authorities as well as the uneasiness between the FBI and local law enforcement. Both of these elements were not in the original story.

Liam Neeson doesn't add much that's unique to the role beyond the baggage of expectations that work in Memory's favor. Neeson is so commonly associated with honorable, well-intentioned characters that we react to Alex positively even though there's nothing about the character that warrants such a reaction. Guy Pearce is also cast somewhat against type - known more often for being a bad guy, it takes a while to warm up to him. As the cold-hearted villain at the top of the gangsters' pyramid, Monica Bellucci doesn't have a lot to do but her presence is nevertheless welcome.

Memory plays like a blended cop movie/revenge thriller and exhibits the strengths and weaknesses of both. At its best, it recalls the Mel Gibson movie Payback (which was similarly a remake of an earlier film based on book). It's not as good as the 1999 production but has some of the same elements (in particular, a hunted man turning the tables on his pursuers and killing his way back up the chain of command). It's solidly entertaining although lacking elements that would give it staying power. It's being released in theaters but should play equally well to home audiences. This is Neeson's best film (at least as a lead) in a while, but may be as much a commentary about the state of the actor's career as an indication of the film's entertainment potential.

© 2022 James Berardinelli