MEMORY is not the best movie we will see from star Liam Neeson or director Martin Campbell (DEFENSELESS, GOLDENEYE, THE MASK OF ZORRO, CASINO ROYALE, THE FOREIGNER), but I think it’s an interesting one. It’s a grim thriller about a contract killer who realizes he’s starting to get dementia and tries to go after some bad people before his mind is gone. That’s pretty similar to the premise of Paul Schrader’s disowned (but I kind of liked it) 2014 film DYING OF THE LIGHT, but it’s actually a remake of the 2003 Belgian film DE ZAAK ALZHEIMER (THE ALZHEIMER CASE), itself based on a 1985 novel by Jef Geeraerts.
It starts with Alex Lewis (Neeson, KRULL) on the job. He enters a hospital in scrubs and we know he’s not a regular nurse by his complete non-reaction to some asshole nearly running him over in the parking garage. It turns out that’s his target, some jerk visiting his mother. We see just enough of of the guy to imagine he might deserve this fate, but also enough of his mother’s terror behind her oxygen mask to think “Man, that’s fucked up.”
As Alex is making his escape he reaches for the keys behind the mirror, and takes a bit to remember they’re in his pocket. Not a big deal, except if you’re a total pro and never make mistakes like that. Can’t make mistakes like that.
Next we meet the other main character, Vincent Serra, played by the great Guy Pearce (LOCKOUT) with scraggly hair and mustache. He’s sitting nervously in an El Paso living room negotiating with Papa Leon (Antonio Jaramillo, SAVAGES), who we quickly realize is pimping out his 13 year old daughter Beatriz (Mia Sanchez). I don’t remember if I ever saw a trailer and for all I knew Pearce really was playing the grossest and most pathetic villain ever in a Liam Neeson joint, so it was a relief when he turned out to be an undercover FBI agent in the Child Exploitation Task Force. Of course he ends up killing Papa Leon and getting that lecture they always get in cop movies about how many months of investigation they just threw (or in this case tackled) out the window.
Beatriz is undocumented and ends up in an immigration detention center. She does not exactly see Vincent as her knight in shining armor – he killed her dad in front of her and got her locked in a cage. He honorably pulls strings to get her into foster care without making her testify, but knows she has to be protected.
Sure enough, Alex is sent to El Paso to kill her, after first taking out a rich guy named Ellis Van Camp (Scot Williams) and stealing flash drives from his safe. He draws the line at killing a kid, though, and decides instead to turn on his boss, Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci, SHOOT ‘EM UP) for asking him to do it. She’s the main villain but she’s accepted into society as a normal rich lady and spends more than one scene just chilling and enjoying a glass of wine in her backyard – possibly intended as sort of a Ghislaine Maxwell type.
There’s alot going on here, but Alex finds time for love with a nice lady named Maya (Stella Stocker, Martha Wayne in THE BATMAN) after beating the shit out of a drunk guy bothering her at the hotel bar. It’s a nice surprise because the character of “Drunk Broker” is played by Louis Mandylor of THE DEBT COLLECTOR 1 & 2, AVENGEMENT, THE MERCENARY and HELL HATH NO FURY fame, and then the cliche masculine fantasy of the scene is deflated by (SPOILER) what happens to Maya the next day. She would’ve been better off never being rescued by him. Before you know it Alex is putting her body in a trunk and because of his condition you gotta worry he’ll forget she’s in there.
Ray Stevenson (RRR) is another actor I’m always happy to see who I was once again happy to see in this one. He Ray Stevensons up the fairly small role of a homicide detective.
Alex goes after Davana’s lawyer (Daniel de Bourg, who was on an episode of Atlanta this season, as was Neeson) and her yacht-party-throwing, detention-center-owning, child-raping son Randy (Josh Taylor), whose crimes are documented on those flash drives and she’s trying to cover up for him. Meanwhile, Vincent, his partner Linda Amistead (Taj Atwal, also in Campbell’s prior film, THE PROTÉGÉ) and cooperating detective from Mexico, Hugo Marquez (Harold Torres, SIN NOMBRE), notice the trail of dead people connected to the detention center, and start zeroing in on Alex as a suspect. So he goes straight to them and tells them he’s going to go after the traffickers in ways that they can’t, starting a tenuous alliance.
It’s not as entertaining as, THE PROTÉGÉ, but I think it’s trying to say more, and it has quite a few of those thrilling moments that made me say, “yep, that’s my boy Martin Campbell.” Like, when Alex threatens a guy in a public restroom he throws him into a stall and breaks the toilet with him. Not all movies go the extra mile of breaking a toilet, but this one does, ’cause that’s my boy Martin Campbell. And I love the scene where a guy is on a treadmill at a gym on a rainy night, looking out the window as shadowy Alex walks right up to the glass and shoots him with a silenced pistol. The guy flops onto the treadmill and gets propelled across the floor. A woman with her back to him has earbuds in and doesn’t notice.
Another good bit is when Vincent comes face-to-face with Alex, and convinces Hugo to lower his gun and let Alex go. But then as Alex is driving away Hugo unloads into his car, and actually wounds him! Nothing seems to go smoothly in this story.
On the surface this seems like kind of a normal Neeson picture with the added vulnerability of the dementia-related confusion and some stuttering he does when he’s scared. But it’s also very dark compared to most of his stuff, and things don’t really unfold in a formulaic way. There are two very innocent female characters who are bluntly offed much earlier and more abruptly than I was ready for – the kind of thing some people consider misogynistic in a movie, but that I definitely think is meant as a demonstration of how misogynistic the world is.
It also depicts a completely broken system. The villains are in the ultimate scumbag profession of child trafficking, but they’re protected by the system because of their legal scumbag profession of building and operating detention centers for profit. Our guys get shot at by cops protecting the traffickers and not because they’re crooked cops – no, they’re cops doing their job, which is protecting rich people, who in this case happen to be traffickers. It will never occur to them that they’re the bad guys.
Our honorable FBI agents actually care and have to go rogue to even try to bust Davana. A person hired to kill by her is not a good enough witness against someone as powerful as her, so they jump through hoops to find the additional evidence of an incriminating recording, but by that time the witness is dead, so they still don’t have enough, at least according to the district attorney. In the end the agents from two different countries decide the only way to win is to conspire to do the same thing the no-fucks-left dying assassin anti-hero tried to do – just kill her. Not very hopeful. Interestingly, the Wikipedia summary of the Belgian version leads me to believe this stays very faithful, except that in that one just finding the tape was enough. The ol’ STRANGE DAYS credibility stretcher. I guess Campbell and/or screenwriter Dario Scardapane (POSSE) knew we wouldn’t accept that here these days.
I also want to give this one a Baby Steps Award for being a little more enlightened than some of the other Mexican border action movies of recent years. It does still have sleazy Mexican criminals doing dirt in the U.S., but puts more emphasis on terrible Americans who own detention centers and cops who don’t accomplish shit. And actually I think the most impressive thing Campbell does in this department is the opening establishing shot of Guadalajara, because it’s not tinted yellow! And they don’t show a slum! It looks exactly like a generic business district in the U.S. (which it may or may not be – I think they did some exteriors in Texas and mostly filmed in Bulgaria). I appreciate when a movie in this genre acknowledges that other countries often have cities that are similar to American ones. Usually they depict everything south of the border as a shithole or a battlefield or both.
As interesting as all this is, I don’t think it’s up to Campbell’s maximum strength of cinematic storytelling, and that’s not because it’s More Grown Up or some shit. It’s still dependent on silly shit like the FBI agents reading in a file that Alex’s dad was a baker and then figuring out his hiding place is the abandoned and pigeon-infested bakery he used to own. No demand for that property in the ensuing decades, I guess. On the other hand it’s also a movie where they raid the bakery and Alex doesn’t seem to hear them coming but happens to leave out the back door right before they would’ve caught him. Sometimes random shit like that is more fun than the obvious shit like “he has an alarm set and a secret escape hatch” or whatever. More novelistic and/or more true to how stupid real life is.
There was a stretch of Neeson’s Old Man Action period when I would see almost all of them – TAKEN, UNKNOWN, THE GREY, TAKEN 2, NON-STOP, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, TAKEN 3, RUN ALL NIGHT, THE COMMUTER, COLD PURSUIT. Most of those I saw those in theaters – opening Friday matinees were my ritual – and maybe that’s why I fell behind during the pandemic, only having caught up with THE MARKSMAN so far.
MEMORY was not one I had heard great things about, but now that it’s hit video I really wanted to see it for two reasons. #1, I really liked THE PROTÉGÉ, and that didn’t get very good reviews either. #2, I wanted to sort of challenge myself with this subject matter. As regular readers know, my dad died of Alzheimer’s, and spent the last years of his life silently walking back and forth down a hallway in the memory unit of an assisted living home. My mom also had it near the end (though it was complications from a brain tumor that really got her) and so did my grandma.
Dealing with all that really did a number on me emotionally. Especially while my dad was still alive I was very raw about the topic, and didn’t want anything to do with movies about it. There’s a well-reviewed horror film that I’m never gonna watch because the premise is there’s this lady who they think has Alzheimer’s but it turns out she’s actually possessed. The idea of it used to make me so mad because I fuckin wished my dad was just possessed and you just get some guy to read the magic Jesus words to him and everything is fine. The real thing is way scarier than the horror movie thing, I guarantee you. It’s still my greatest fear that I will inherit it, so every time I can’t think of a name or a word I start to worry I’m doomed.
But due to my Oscar completism I did watch that movie THE FATHER, the one where Anthony Hopkins won best actor for playing a man beginning to suffer from dementia. It’s a spectacular performance even for Hopkins, really accurately capturing things I recognized from what happened to my dad. But I guess their life circumstances were different enough from mine that I was able to have a little bit of distance, and I wasn’t too wrecked by it. So that gave me the courage to try watching this one that’s more in my wheelhouse, to get over my reluctance to ever think about the topic.
So I’m happy to report that I was okay. There’s actually one scene that got some tears out of me – Alex goes to visit his older brother (Lyubomir Bachvarov I think) who has Alzheimer’s much further along than he does, which I guess is why he’s so sure of what’s happening to him. He gets to visit him outdoors, as they always do in movies, but otherwise it was similar to my experiences and brought up some memories. But outside of that scene it was removed enough from my reality that I didn’t take it too personally. In fact, I kinda think they don’t do enough with the Alzheimer’s. He has to write stuff on his arm like MEMENTO but it doesn’t hold him back much until he forgets where he hid the tape and, uh, to load a gun. I guess there’s the part where he sees a murder on the news and doesn’t know if it was him or not. But it’s less a part of the movie than you’d think. I guess they didn’t want to overdo it.
Overall I enjoyed the experience of watching MEMORY, and my opinion of it is improving a little as I write about it and think about it more. I think it’s a worthwhile addition to the Neeson jointography, if not a highlight.