Even those of us who’ve generally enjoyed Liam Neeson’s recent run of tough-guy roles sometimes forget that he can be a hell of a performer, too. His latest, Memory, directed by action legend Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, The Mask of Zorro), offers a helpful reminder that Neeson kicking ass need not mean Neeson on acting autopilot. The film, a remake of the 2003 Belgian thriller The Memory of a Killer, follows a hitman suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s, but the dementia element is more a narrative contrivance than a serious exploration of a debilitating illness. (For that, you might want to check out Gaspar Noé’s Vortex instead, also out this week.) But Neeson, who had been an intensely physical actor even before he started playing guys with special sets of skills, conveys the vulnerability, pain, and fear of the character so well that he turns a nothing plot element into something genuinely moving.
When we first meet Alex Lewis (Neeson), he’s posing as a nurse in order to brutally strangle a man visiting his sick mother in the hospital. Our hero is not a good guy: Alex has spent his life killing people for money, often at the behest of gangsters operating in and around El Paso, Texas. But when he’s given a job that involves targeting a young girl, he refuses to kill her. Is this a sign of a humanity he’s always had, or is it a newfound hesitancy brought on by his condition? “You’re going soft,” his boss, Mauricio (Lee Boardman), says, bitterly.
A greater conspiracy is unfolding, however. The girl, Beatriz (Mia Sanchez), was a child-trafficking victim, and a dogged FBI agent, Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce, who himself starred in Memento 22 years ago, a film to which Memory occasionally nods), is hoping she will be the witness to help him take down a massive human-trafficking operation. The conspiracy, however, reaches through the upper levels of El Paso society, including the family of local businesswoman and philanthropist Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci). While Serra and his partners, among whom is Hugo Marquez (Harold Torres) of the Mexican intelligence agency, encounter obstacles legal and otherwise, Alex seems to be the one person who can cut through all that red tape — a deadly lone wolf with what is now a personal grudge and not a lot of time left.
That results in an intriguing confusion of loyalties that the film probably could have done more with; Serra and his crew are torn over whether to try and stop Alex or to let him work his killing-machine magic. But overall, Memory works not so much as a procedural — it’s a bit too simply plotted for that — as it does as a character study. Credit the actors, and director Campbell’s willingness to give them their space. Neeson, in particular, is well-suited to portray Alex’s growing fragility. When he wakes up in the middle of the night, haunted by the images of people he may or may not have killed, his fear and confusion are overwhelming. The actor has always had a thing for suffering; even his action movies are on some level about shame and regret and intense personal pain. But what was submerged in the previous movies is out in the open this time. One scene where Alex cauterizes a bullet wound in his torso with a bottle of liquor and a lighter is so agonizing that I’d believe it if you told me Neeson had actually burned himself.
There’s an interesting edge to the action, too. Alex smashes heads and blows away people (not all of them bad guys, either) with ruthless, automatic efficiency, but it all feels reflexive, as if it’s been programmed into his muscle memory. That speaks to why he’s able to keep offing people even as he seems to be losing his cognitive abilities. He’s been killing for so long that it comes as naturally to him as breathing. That makes for a compelling contrast: On the one hand, we get surprisingly effective and visceral violence — the genre spectacle at which Campbell has always excelled — and on the other, a very real tenderness and anguish that’s quite rare in this sort of flick. In the end, Memory’s greatest asset might be that it knows exactly what it is — a fun combination of sleazoid action and surprising emotion. It’s the best kind of B-movie.