I thought Raymond Chandler’s famous, fictional private dick and gimlet-eyed tough guy Philip Marlowe, who prefers nibbling on a pretty girl’s ear to plugging her crooked boyfriend, had packed up his shingle and retired to some condo in Palm Springs. I guess I underestimated Hollywood’s addiction to sequels, prequels and recycling old hits into stale, second-rate repros. Marlowe, directed by Ireland’s Neil Jordan, drags him out of mothballs again, wearing the same old hat and the same rumpled suit from the 1930s every Marlowe from the past has worn, from Humphrey Bogart to Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum. The suit has worn out its welcome and so has Philip Marlowe.
MARLOWE ★★ (2/4 stars)
In the decades since Bogey played the downbeat investigator in The Big Sleep (l945), no improvements have been noted. Liam Neeson is a fine actor, especially on stage, but he’s too frayed around the edges and long in the chops to be mistaken for a debonair gumshoe, although not as hopelessly baggy as the woefully miscast Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye (1973). In every incarnation, Marlowe has always been hired by a beautiful, dangerous, and bafflingly mysterious femme fatale who wants him to find a missing person. This time it’s an heiress (Diane Kruger) and the daughter of a hard-boiled film star (Jessica Lange) who enlists his services to find an ex-lover named Nico, one of the kingpins in the Hollywood underworld. Ironies build, narrow escapes accelerate, and familiar fisticuffs multiply, to little avail, in William Monaghan’s yawning screenplay.
Not many filmmakers know how to make a film noir any more. Black and white camera work would help, but I don’t see any remedy to Liam Neeson’s bland expressions or indifferent line readings. In the clinches with Diane Kruger, there isn’t a shred of the sexy chemistry that turned Bogart and Bacall onto household names in The Big Sleep, and nothing happens you haven’t already seen orchestrated in keener and far superior films, such as Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Random characters appear to revisit early Hollywood locations, including a shady club owner (Danny Huston), a wealthy ambassador (Mitchell Mullen), a collector of rare and priceless antiques (Alan Cumming), and the missing man’s tortured sister (Daniela Melchior). They all waft in and out of incoherent subplots, contributing nothing important or fascinating to the narrative.
Liam Neeson is the dullest denizen of this particularly unctuous Hollywood After Dark. As Marlowe, he uncovers the usual blackmail, grand larceny, homicide and other crimes corrupting the klieg light rays of Southern California, without much energy or wit. Distilled from the 2014 novel The Black Eyed Blonde by John Banville, writing under the pen name Benjamin Black, this movie isn’t even original Raymond Chandler, and a great opportunity has been missed to bathe a film noir in the brittle ambience of old Hollywood, ignoring the glamour and decadence so beautifully captured in colorful films of the same period (Farewell My Lovely and L.A. Confidential, to name just two). Marlowe is set in 1939, but it was filmed in Barcelona and Dublin, of all places, erasing its most valuable character—Los Angeles—and leaving the viewer under-stimulated by an oversexed pulp fiction hero who shrugs his way through it looking bored. His sleuthing is reduced to uncover the answers to only three vital questions: “Whose ashes are filling Nico’s urn?” “Why?” And “Does anybody care?”
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.