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  • Nate Adams

'Marlowe' review: Liam Neeson led noir mystery a sluggish case

Courtesy of Open Road Films


Taking a break from his B-movie action vehicles of late (“Honest Thief,” “The Marksmen,” and “Memory”), Liam Neeson steps into a character known for their wit, personality and, if the situation demands it, throwing a punch. He plays the iconic fictional character Philip Marlowe in the new film adaptation directed by the prolific Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game” and “Interview with a Vampire”). Created on the page by Raymond Chandler, Philip Marlowe is easily one of the most recognizable literary figures of the last five decades, a gumshoe detective who could rival Sherlock Holmes in terms of intellectual skill and bravado. So then why does the movie, “Marlowe,” do nothing to complement the characters decade spanning legacy? 

Somehow, Jordan, at one point the director you called to helm a major studio project, and screenwriter William Monahan, keep the plot surface level. Which is shocking considering the narrative deals with everything from corrupt studio heads, drug smuggling, to love affairs, missing persons, and double crossings. The production and costume work are sensible enough to transport viewers to a 1939 California backdrop and give an honest feel of the World War II era in which the film takes place, but the monotonous plotting and sleepy Neeson performance makes it a bland, cinematic exercise destined for Wal-Mart bargain bin nirvana. 

Though the character of Philip Marlowe has many narrative threads that could be explored, this current iteration borrows from John Banville’s novel “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” but the energy and pace don’t suggest it’s a story worth reading. The film is approached as if everyone involved knows older audiences need their narrative beats spoon fed to them. Everything is matter-of-fact, slummy, and predictable. A good mystery makes you forget about where it's going until the final reveal. Here, you can sniff it a mile away. 

As the story goes, Neeson plays Marlowe who's been employed by Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger - wasted) to locate Nico Peterson (Francois Arnaud), a prop designer she was sneaking around with, who has gone missing and is presumed dead. It leads Marlowe towards some obviously shady individuals including a suspicious club manager played by Danny Huston and even Clare’s mother, Dorothy (Jessica Lange), a former Hollywood starlet with major reputable cache in the city that never sleeps. 

This in turn leads Marlowe on a series of forgettable sequences; with characters who introduce ignorable locations; that lead to laughable dialogue and sloppy third act switcheroos (Alan Cumming doing his best southern drawl is something I didn’t foresee on my 2023 bingo card). It’s a steady stream of misdirects and aimless subplots that may have held firm if Neeson’s central performance gave more umph. Most of that falls on the screenwriter and filmmakers, who fail to deepen Marlowe’s internal conflict or offer its roster of talent some form of direction that isn’t: “stand here and monologue.” 

Instead, everyone looks bored, eager to cash a paycheck, and move on to the next project. I hope this doesn’t detour Neeson from taking on dramatically steered roles, because it was a relief seeing him do something that required some emotional urgency and not just pointing a gun at someone’s face. We can only hope the next one is a stronger script that’s engaging and memorable. 

Grade: C- 

MARLOWE opens in theaters Wednesday, February 15th.  


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