It’s been forty-five years since Liam Neeson’s first screen credit, and he’s done quite a lot in that time. An Oscar nomination fifteen years later for Schindler’s List was arguably the high point of his career, which shifted from prestigious character pieces to brainless action flicks that have been released in recent years with startling frequency (including Blacklight just last year). For his one hundredth effort, Neeson diverges somewhat from his typecast role to play Raymond Chandler’s famed private detective Philip Marlowe in Marlowe.
Set in 1930s Los Angeles, this film finds Marlowe (Neeson) hired by Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), a woman who claims to be looking for her missing lover (François Arnaud). But as Marlowe looks deeper, he finds that Cavendish may not have told him the full truth, and also encounters her mother Dorothy (Jessica Lange), who appears to have her own aims and motivations. Marlowe’s search takes him into the heart of Hollywood and a den of corruption that threatens to swallow him up before he can solve the mystery.
There are a few worthwhile things to note about this film, which is hardly the first screen appearance of its titular protagonist, who has previously been played by Humphrey Bogart, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, and others. It is not based on one of Chandler’s 1930 works but instead on the 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville. Neil Jordan, who previously directed Neeson in the 1996 film Michael Collins, helms his first film in five years, from a screenplay by Oscar winner William Monahan, who has successfully adapted other books into films including The Departed, London Boulevard, and The Tender Bar.
The combination of that talent results in a film that does at the very least feel firmly grounded within its period setting. It’s reminiscent of recent entries Babylon and Amsterdam that portray fame, fortune, the mob, and the rise of Nazism within America during that era. It’s presented on a much smaller scale, however, with scenes involving just one or two characters and Marlowe operating largely on his own rather than enlisting a particular team of associates to ensure his own safety and survival. The film proceeds at a rather pensive pace, seemingly aware of the fact that even solving the case won’t feel like a victory for Marlowe because he can’t do anything to change the system.
At times, Marlowe does feel like the Neeson archetype that he’s perfected over the past fifteen years since it all started with Taken, but he’s less prone to showy violence and instead is merely looking out for himself, ready to take someone out before they get him first. Kruger blends in especially well with her surroundings, delivering an involved performance like her memorable turn in Inglourious Basterds, and Lange similarly finds a role worthy of her time. The ensemble is packed with appearances from great actors like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian Hart, Colm Meaney, Alan Cumming, Daniela Melchior, and Danny Huston, though it doesn’t feel as if any of them are given enough time to truly make an impression.
Marlowe tells the kind of story that should be moody and somewhat unresolved, following a man who never wanted to be a private detective down a dark road that will surely lead to nowhere good (the HBO reboot of Perry Mason is a good point of comparison). Neeson makes sense as the choice to play this lead role in a film that presents its events in a straightforward way with occasionally alluring cinematography, costumes, and period set design. But this is not the version of Marlowe that will reignite cinematic interest in the character, instead just another entry that serves its purpose without being all that memorable.
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Marlowe opens in theaters on Wednesday, February 15th.