Fourteen years after the release of “Taken,” there’s a certain understanding of Action-Neeson movies (you know, the ones where Liam Neeson has a gun and a grievance) that audiences have come to accept: Never ask questions about his Irish accent, even when he’s playing characters who shouldn’t have one; understand that, whatever the situation, Neeson and his “very particular set of skills” will prove indomitable; and never, ever think too hard about the real-world implications of these shoot-’em-up fantasies, lest the whole house of cards collapse.
“Memory,” the latest Action-Neeson release, is a terrible movie, and the fact that it’s trying to tweak the Action-Neeson formula isn’t even in the top 20 reasons of why it’s so awful. But if the paradigm of this subgenre is going to be changed in any way, it’s going to have to happen in a film far, far more competent than this one.
Director Martin Campbell — who made 2006’s “Casino Royale,” yes, but then he also made “Green Lantern” — crafts a saga that provides unintentional hilarity until it takes a climactic turn into moral reprehensibility, and neither is a good look for a movie that, in April, isn’t even the first Action-Neeson movie of 2022.
Neeson stars as Alex, a ruthlessly efficient contract killer whose personal code of murder-ethics involves refusing child targets. His area of expertise bumps him up against Guy Pearce as Vincent, an FBI agent who puts himself too much on the line in his pursuit of child traffickers. (As we discover early on from a photo of his family, Vincent has a relevant and tragic backstory.)
Alex is hired by El Paso real-estate magnate Davana (a tragically misused Monica Bellucci) to eliminate one of her son’s business associates as well as a 13-year-old girl named Beatriz (Mia Sanchez, “A Woman, A Part”), who has been trafficked from Mexico into the US. Vincent has placed Beatriz into foster care in the hopes that she won’t be deported. Alex refuses the hit on Beatriz, but when someone else murders her, Alex starts working his way up the ladder toward Davana, accomplishing with bullets and bombs what Vincent is trying to take on via more legal means.
Vincent eventually has to try to stop Alex, although it’s clear that he has some empathy for Alex’s motives if not his methods. Alex, meanwhile, is trying to get the job done before he is completely overwhelmed by the Alzheimer’s-related dementia that has begun to diminish his cognitive capacity.
The issues of mental and physical deterioration, child trafficking, and rich Americans on the border exploiting their Mexican neighbors are all the stuff of provocative, meaningful storytelling, but for screenwriter Dario Scardapane (Netflix’s “The Punisher”), remaking the 2003 Belgian film “The Memory of a Killer,” these plot points flop to the ground like flat tennis balls being tossed at a disinterested golden retriever. If you were to remove the cop clichés and exposition dumps, you’d be left with a silent movie.
Not that Campbell is making an effort to elevate the material, either; between the flat, airless cinematography (by David Tattersall, “The Protégé”), Photek’s generic and on-the-nose score, and even the title cards and credits (which appear to have been created on fair-use software), “Memory” often feels more like a direct-to-video threequel than an actual movie.
And while the director has certainly pulled off some impressive action feats in the past, the staging here is often ludicrous. In one shootout scene, Alex blasts away at a chandelier, plunging the room into darkness. He escapes into a lit stairwell, leaving the door open behind him, so now there’s a light source. Nonetheless, the policemen look around in the dark for him, and it’s not until the lights come back on that someone notices the open door and realizes, “He’s headed for the roof.”
Neeson no doubt embraced the opportunity to play a more vulnerable version of his usual badass, and he doesn’t overdo the symptoms as Alex fends off the memory issues that plague him. Pearce wrestles simultaneously with both an accent and a mustache, but at least he makes an effort to lift Vincent out of being pure cliché. And poor Monica Bellucci gets stuck with the ripest dialogue and the least direction; she deserves far, far better than “Memory” gives her.
Were “Memory” just silly and inept, it could be filed away in the deep chasm of forgettable Action-Neeson movies, but the film’s final act — note: possible vague spoiler ahead — suggests that there are crimes that call for official uniformed vigilantism. This is vile messaging at any time, but particularly in light of recent headline-grabbing homicides committed by law enforcement. There’s a conversation to be had about how rich people elude justice and how the courts offer little resource to the victims of the wealthy, but it would require a nuance and level of intelligence that this movie comes nowhere near achieving.
“Memory” opens in US theaters April 29.