The less you remember about 2003 Belgian thriller “Memory of a Killer,” the better, when it comes to its remake, directed by “Casino Royale” veteran Martin Campbell. Relocated to El Paso, Texas, this new version — which channels the brutal cynicism of recent Taylor Sheridan movies, or the even more ruthless tone of Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” — takes the bones of a tough European crime drama and uses them as the grim gallows on which to hang yet another nihilistic Liam Neeson action vehicle.
These days, such Liam Neeson movies unofficially constitute a genre unto themselves. Starting with “Taken,” the Oscar-nominated actor who so sensitively played one of the screen’s great savers of souls in “Schindler’s List” has been reborn as a symbol of retribution. “Taken” came out in 2010, the year after the shocking skiing accident of real-life wife Natasha Richardson, and it has felt as if the actor himself was transformed by that tragedy, hollowed out and reduced to a rage machine. He is, as the mad dad in that movie said, a man with “a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career,” skills that have been unexpectedly honed into this incredibly specific, incredibly lethal persona.
In film after film, multiple times a year, Neeson plays men who power forward in pursuit of vengeance or justice — like a human shark, or a deadly weapon with the safety catch removed. Through it all, Neeson remains a great actor, someone who seeks to understand the soul of such violent men, and that sets his projects apart from the countless other “Taken” knockoffs produced each year. His movies make money, and in turn, Neeson makes more movies, each one a lot like the last, to the extent that audiences reasonably know what to expect. “Memory” may surprise them — provided they’ve forgotten the movie on which it’s based, that is, since the twisty plot felt fresher in its earlier incarnation.
Neeson plays Alex Lewis, a hit man who is very good at his job. We recognize this because Alex is pushing 70 and still getting the jump on men half his age. We recognize this too because hit men so often wind up being hunted and killed by other hit men in such movies, or else moving to a Caribbean island with a bag of diamonds — but “Memory” doesn’t feel like that kind of movie. Alex is slowly losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, which means retirement isn’t likely to be so glamorous. We recognize this when, after completing his first job, he misplaces the key to his getaway vehicle. We recognize this too when he rolls up his sleeve and we see all the key details scribbled there in black marker.
At this point, audiences will no doubt remember another movie, Christopher Nolan’s backsliding puzzle-box thriller “Memento,” so it’s a bit surprising when the film introduces none other than that film’s star, Guy Pearce, as the FBI agent whose investigation into a sordid sex trafficking ring puts him on a collision course with Neeson’s character. Relatively early in the film, Campbell shows the two men sitting in neighboring cars, unaware of one another’s existence. They are driving to the same place: a safe house where Vincent Serra (Pearce) is trying to protect a teenage girl who’s meant to be a key witness in his case. Alex has been sent there to kill her.
Alex gets as far as the girl’s bedroom before deciding not to pull the trigger. But the decision is much deeper than that. In refusing to fulfill the assignment, he’s signing his own death warrant. He will be hunted by other hit men, and he will take as many of the bad guys with him before he goes as possible. Alex knows he’s no hero, but there are worse people than him in the world, and “Memory” becomes a kind of brutal cleanup exercise in which he can achieve what law enforcement can’t. Typically, he’s the tool people call to snuff the star witness before the trial. Now, he’s the one who can step in when the police move too slow. For this to work, Alex and Vincent must make a sort of uneasy arrangement, and audiences must accept that the entire justice system is broken.
Alex’s employer, it turns out, is a powerful Texas millionaire, embodied by Monica Bellucci as a woman who once was beautiful and now is obsessed with trying to prolong her own life. Her character is complicit in an underage sex ring, the likes of which righteous QAnon followers are so adamant lurks in the shadows of American society. Maybe it does. In “Memory,” Neeson could be their very own action hero, working his way up the chain until he’s dismantled the whole operation.
There’s less action here than you might assume. Campbell’s directing style is typically energetic, shot with a muscular moving camera. But when the violence comes, it’s sudden, unexpected and irreversible. At one point, Alex makes a car blow up, and Campbell shows the explosions from miles away, a tiny flash of fire all but lost in a wide shot of El Paso. Later, Alex kills a man at the gym, and the murder goes unseen and unheard by the woman working out in the foreground.
In the end, “Memory” isn’t terribly convincing, but it’s at least trying for something more serious than most. Released earlier this year, thematically similar “Catch the Fair One” was a far better movie. But it didn’t star Liam Neeson. And if that’s a prerequisite when picking such films, you could certainly do worse than “Memory.”