The premise of Memory just might be the mother of all high concepts: A hired assassin has Alzheimer’s. It instantly evokes two possible interpretations: bruising black comedy would be one, thoughtful musing on life and death the other. In especially deft hands, a third option would meld the two. As directed by Martin Campbell from a screenplay by Dario Scardapane, and even with a couple of soulful actors at its center, that premise plays out as none of the above; it’s a mechanical plot point in a perfunctory actioner that leaves laughs — intentional ones, anyway — and existential meditations by the wayside.
Adapting the 2003 Belgian feature The Memory of a Killer, based on the novel De Zaak Alzheimer (The Alzheimer Case), Memory comes equipped with all the accoutrements of the contract-killer genre: the burner phones, the silencers, the laser sights, the Liam Neeson. This time, though, Neeson isn’t the law-and-order guy wielding questionable methods in the name of justice, but the mercenary who is faced with an unacceptable assignment — his target is a 13-year-old girl — and trying to do the right thing before his dimming cognitive lights go out permanently.
All too forgettable.
To believe, as we’re meant to, that Neeson’s Alex Lewis spent his formative years in El Paso, Texas, where most of the action is set, would require its own cognitive disconnect. Then again, the production was shot mainly in Bulgaria, and there’s a vaguely intercontinental, pan-European vibe to the cast, from small supporting roles to Monica Bellucci’s spiritless rendering of a villainous bigwig.
But the Lone Star State is meant to be more than a state of mind in Memory. It’s meant to put a topical slant on a storyline involving the abuse and trafficking of children. The teenager who Alex refuses to kill is an undocumented immigrant; a detention center for such children proves to be a vicious nexus of public and private interests; and the real-life unsolved murders of countless girls and women in Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, haunts and drives a key character.
For all its questions of morality, mortality and politics, the film feels empty at its core, not unlike the sleek modern spaces where the story’s ultra-wealthy, ultra-corrupt and ultra-clichéd scheme and cavort joylessly. Matching the screenplay’s lack of nuance, Campbell (Casino Royale, The Protégé) orchestrates the proceedings with a flat efficacy, stringing together familiar action beats and churning up little that rings true.
As the movie opens, Alex pulls off a hit of gruesome expertise in a Guadalajara hospital, a scene that’s mirrored, with even more blood, in the film’s final stretch. However ruthless a killing machine Alex may be, his humanizing predicament becomes clear when, returning to his car after dispatching his victim, he struggles for a painful moment to remember where he put his car key. The pills he takes are designed to forestall the inevitable, and to help maintain an even keel he scrawls factoids on his inner forearm for easy reference. Neeson signals Alex’s frustration and his acknowledgment of defeat. He’s ready to quit this crazy business, a decision that his Mexico City contact Mauricio (Lee Boardman) rejects, hoisting a fat envelope of cash at him with instructions to kill two people in El Paso, a town Alex knows well.
After dispatching target No. 1, a well-to-do businessman (Scot Williams), and retrieving an item from his safe, Alex discovers that the second would-be victim is 13-year-old Beatriz (Mia Sanchez). With his customary violence, he lets his smarmy local handler (Daniel de Bourg) know that he wants the contract canceled, setting off a new round of cat-and-mouse in which he’s the quarry.
FBI agent Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce), meanwhile, has taken a particular interest in Beatriz, who was being pimped by her father (Antonio Jaramillo) and is now orphaned, after a sting by Vincent’s team, the agency’s Child Exploitation Task Force, goes spectacularly wrong. Vincent’s boss, Gerald Nussbaum (Ray Fearon), puts the task force on ice and sends Mexican investigator Hugo Marquez (Harold Torres) packing. But Hugo finds a reason to stick around, and neither Vincent nor his partner, Linda Amisted (Taj Atwal), is eager to pivot to run-of-the-mill local crimes. An El Paso detective (Ray Stevenson) isn’t thrilled to have them around, and Alex, in his last-ditch pursuit of truth and justice, is one step ahead of them all. If only he can remember where he put that flash drive filled with incriminating audio.
Scardapane (producer-writer of the series The Bridge and The Punisher) advances the story via information drops posing as conversation. Case in point: “You realize we’re talking about one of the most powerful real estate moguls in the country, right?” Bellucci’s Davana Sealman, the mogul in question, pulls many puppet strings in the city, a power that her hedonistic son (Josh Taylor) depends on. The pileup of one-note characters also includes a prostitute (Stella Stocker) working the bar at Alex’s hotel, and a trophy-wife stereotype (Natalie Anderson) who feels like something out of a subpar Raymond Chandler knockoff, or an unintended spoof of one.
The involvement of Pearce is a wink and a nod to his role in a classic of the memory-affliction subgenre, Memento, a taut and masterful thriller in whose shadow Memory withers. Pearce is one of the greatest actors of his generation, and his performance is the strongest, most sustained and convincing element of the film — and one that frequently finds him in a vacuum.
He enters the story delivering a performance within a performance: In the attempted sting, Vincent poses as a john seeking the company of an underage girl. Even after he’s shaken off the layers of scuzz required for that role, there’s something off about Vincent, a sense that he’s uncared for. The explanation arrives in an eleventh-hour revelation that should be crushing in its sadness but is instead awkward in its narrative ineptitude.
To give that disclosure its intended impact, Campbell would have had to stir up certain undercurrents in the characters who interact with Vincent. Atwal comes closest in a final exchange that, against the odds in a movie that can feel propelled by an algorithm, produces a satisfying emotional zing.
However unsubtle the material, Neeson offers unforced glimmers of a soul lost to brutality as Alex wavers between a thickening mental fog and perfect lucidity when the plot demands it. But there’s also a sense of his effortless screen magnetism being shoehorned into a thriller boilerplate. And it’s tempting to imagine, when Alex is staring into the middle distance, forgetting where he is and why, that Neeson might be remembering when he played complex men like Alfred Kinsey and Michael Collins.