Neil Jordan and Liam Neeson’s take on Raymond Chandler’s PI occasionally offers a lovely spark, but never enough that bidding it farewell is a sad affair.
I love mysteries and crime stories. And it’s been a treat these past few years to have so many good detective stories on television (Under the Banner of Heaven, for instance) and in cinemas (Rian Johnson’s Benoit Blanc mysteries, the quite charming Confess, Fletch). Would that I could count Neil Jordan‘s Marlowe among them. I cannot. It’s a bad movie, and bad in a very frustrating fashion—no one’s phoning it in, but nothing connects outside of a few stray moments save for David Holmes’ no-disclaimers excellent score.
Adapted from the Benjamin Black-penned and Raymond Chandler-estate-authorized novel The Black Eyed Blonde, Marlowe follows Chandler’s knight-errant PI (here played by Liam Neeson) on a quest for the wealthy Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger)’s missing lover Nico Peterson (François Arnaud). Peterson’s vanishing seems easily solved—the unfortunate schmuck got smashed (as in hammered) inside the exclusive club where he had been Cavendish’s guest and smashed again (as in by a car) outside the club.
Would that it was so simple. Cavendish is sure she saw Peterson alive in Mexico days after his alleged death. And despite his apparent employment barely competent part-time prop master, the city’s power players (primarily Danny Houston and Alan Cumming) regard Peterson as a capital letters Person of Interest to their capital-B Business. And Cavendish’s devious mother—aging actress Dorothy (Jessica Lange), is similarly curious about the life and times of the possibly late Mr. Peterson. The investigation turns into a spiral into darkness, violence becomes not merely a distant possibility but real, and Marlowe will not let go.
He would not be Philip Marlowe if he did.
Unfortunately, Neeson makes a poor Marlowe—and in a bizarre way too. He’s not sleepwalking or trying to play Marlowe another Neeson Badass. Indeed, his brief action sequences are perhaps the moments where he clicks as a worn-down, pragmatic and still deeply noble detective. He’s an old man, so he uses surprise and the environment to his advantage as best he can. If he can avoid a fight, he will. If he has to fight, he’ll play his ace where it would be most effective. Outside Marlowe‘s action, though, Neeson seems strangely detached. Taken in isolation, his work is solid, but it’s out of sync in context—a delivery more than a performance.
The same holds for Diane Kruger’s turn as Cavendish. There are moments where she commands the screen as a woman looking for answers—and more that she’s not letting on to Marlowe, but for the most part, her work does not gel. Lange and Cumming, at least, do fun work—She as a comfortably embittered matriarch and he as a ruthless operator who revels in simultaneously being superficially charming and openly nefarious.
It’s always competently made, and there are flashes of a better film here and there. But it’s bloodless.
Jordan’s direction and William Monahan’s script suffer from the same odd airlessness as Neeson and Kruger’s performances. There are moments of spark—Marlowe’s unwilling journey through and escape from an aggressively colorful torture den is tense and thrilling and features excellent work from Neeson, Cummings, Houston, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. But far, far too often, Marlowe is content to pantomime a period-piece noir detective story rather than dig in and tell a period-piece noir detective story.
Marlowe doesn’t engage with Marlowe as an old man beyond an “I’m getting too old for this” crack and his desire to reclaim his lost pension. It doesn’t engage with its setting (despite transplanting The Black Eyed Blonde‘s older Marlowe from its original 1950s setting into the late 1930s of Marlowe’s original adventures) beyond a vague contempt for movie production’s exploitative side and a few nods to the eve of World War II. Very little makes an impact on the characters or their actors’ performances. It’s always competently made, and there are flashes of a better film here and there.
But it’s bloodless. It lacks care, passion, and the driving need to know that animates excellent detective stories. It’s a shame, an eminently skippable shame.
While I cannot speak to The Black Eyed Blonde directly, I will say that the similarly-Chandler-estate-authorized-Old-Man-Marlowe novel (set in the late 1980s and featuring, amongst other things, Marlowe reckoning with his long life and wielding a sword cane) Only to Sleep by Lawrence Osborne is excellent. And if you’ve got a hankering for Marlowe on film? The Big Sleep is legendary for a reason.