The idea of casting Liam Neeson as author Raymond Chandler’s famed, hardened, and perpetually skeptical detective Philip Marlowe is great in theory, especially if it’s built around a story where the gumshoe is heading into the twilight of his career. Add into the mix well known director and co-writer Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, Greta) and screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven, The Departed), and it would seem like there’s a strong foundation for the pre-WWII detective thriller Marlowe to build off and create something special. But while the general foundation of Marlowe is solid, there isn’t much else of interest at in this otherwise messy, downplayed, and dull detective yarn.
It’s October of 1939 in Los Angeles, and private eye Marlowe has just been hired by wealthy heiress Claire Cavendish (Diane Kruger) to find her missing lover, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud), a Hollywood prop master. Everyone thinks Nico is dead – the victim of a hit and run outside an exclusive country club – but Claire insists she saw him recently in Tijuana. Marlowe knows that Claire isn’t telling him the whole story, but he continues the investigation anyway, running afoul of the shifty country club owner (Danny Huston) and a local mobster (Alan Cumming) who also wants to “have a word” with the missing Nico.
Marlowe, which is based on a 2014 novel named The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville (under the pseudonym Benjamin Black) and not an original story by Chandler, is all simmer and no sizzle; all potatoes and no steak. It’s not bad in the sense that it’s unwatchable or somehow offensive to behold, but rather because everything feels cut rate, rushed, and blandly competent. Although the cast is doing their best to breathe some life into the world of this classic character, Marlowe goes through all the old gumshoe motions without conviction or suspense. It’s a film that almost seems to be boring itself as it unfolds.
Marlowe gets off to an admirably fast start, jumping straight into the mystery and presupposing that viewers already have some familiarity with the main character. (That being a double edged sword, since unless the viewer is also a cinephile or avid reader, this character hasn’t been in a theatrically released film since the late 1970s.) But while Jordan and Monahan throw the viewer into the deep end immediately, the creatives behind the camera have given little reason to invest in any of this. The viewer is also smart enough to know that everyone is lying to Marlowe, or else there wouldn’t be a movie. With any real sense of character building thrown out the window early on, everyone in Marlowe comes across as one dimensional stereotypes that are pawns in a screenwriter and director’s game to get from point A to point B.
That lack of depth might be forgivable if Jordan directed Marlowe with any sort of panache or energy, but much of the film is as exciting as watching someone reading tax receipts aloud. For a film so concerned with getting things started and eventually over with as quickly as possible, Marlowe moves without any true sense of urgency or danger. The tone of Marlowe is strangely aloof, and therefore nothing ever seems in doubt or all that dangerous. The expected twists and reveals arrive and unfold predictably, but the journey to get to those points isn’t interesting or exciting enough to distract from the obviousness. Dodgy editing that’s sometimes downright jarring (with some scenes that randomly end out of nowhere and transition into something completely different), a clunky sound mix, painfully obvious usage of CGI for rudimentary details, Jordan’s misplaced love of mood lighting, and an overall vibe that this is a period piece working from a shoestring budget further demerit the film’s case.
For his part, Neeson is just fine as one of literature’s greatest gumshoes. It’s not a stretch for the actor in the slightest (with the film even going out of its way to make sure there are some Taken-styled action beats where he gets to fight some baddies, often by putting thugs through or breaking furniture over them), but the part fits him like a broken-in trench coat. Marlowe never once bothers to explain or examine the detective’s dogged tenacity, even when presented with a case he should probably walk away from, but Neeson (who previously collaborated with Jordan on the vastly better historical drama Michael Collins and the marginally better comedy High Spirits) just has the sort of cadence, face, and swagger that makes the character believable just by looking at him. The film is at its liveliest and most palatable whenever Neeson has a great scene partner to play off, even if the script is sometimes eye-rollingly overwritten when it comes to the supposedly hard boiled dialogue.
Houston is gleefully malicious and cutting. Cumming is bringing some real heat as the charming, but obviously threatening crime boss. Colm Meaney pops up for a nice little spell as Marlowe’s closest ally still on the police force. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje takes what could’ve been a thankless role as Cummings’ muscle/valet and somehow makes him the film’s most likeable and relatable character. Jessica Lange is a hoot as the client’s arrogant, bossy, but usually perceptive mother. The only weak link here is Kruger, who also seems made for this sort of femme fatale role, but is struggling mightily under the weight of this hackneyed dialogue. She succeeds at making the viewer mistrustful, but never comes close to making the character appear like a legitimate threat.
Marlowe is one of those movies where it’s easy to see the best of intentions on paper, but in practice almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. The good things in Jordan’s latest hint at what could’ve been, but what’s actually presented is bland gruel with a few nice berries to break up the monotony. Unsatisfying and never coming fully to life, there’s no mystery as to why Marlowe doesn’t work. All the evidence is right in front of the viewer’s face to see.
Marlowe opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, February 15, 2023.
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