Directed by: Neil Jordan
Distributed by: Open Road Films
Written by Patrick Hao
The gumshoe detective is making a bit of a comeback in popular culture as of late. With successes like Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” series, Rian Johnson’s “Poker Face,” moderate hits like Branagh’s Poirot series, and the resurgence of old comforts like “Colombo” and “Murder She Wrote,” the culture has been primed for a Philipe Marlowe sighting at the movies. Unfortunately for the classic noir detective, Neil Jordan’s “Marlowe” is neither an electric shock that revives the character into the 21st century nor is it a fitting ode to the detective noir genre it tries to evoke.
Philip Marlowe, the detective spawned by Raymond Chandler, is played here by Liam Neeson. At 70 years old, Neeson does not capture any of the essence of Marlowe. In movie form, Marlowe has been embodied by different personas. Humphrey Bogart’s conception of the character was a hard-living man with deep integrity beneath a tough exterior. Robert Mitchum’s conception is one of malaise caused by years of being in the muck. Neeson’s Marlowe does not exhibit any of that. In fact, his character is such a non-character that it almost seems like Philip Marlowe is nothing more than a vector for Jordan and writer William Monahan to explore 1930s Hollywood. One would hope that reteaming with his “Michael Collins” director and playing such an iconic character would inject Neeson with some life, but the result is Neeson at his sleepiest, lumbering from location to location.
The plot that usually surrounds a Philip Marlowe novel is some sort of ludicrous concoction of thrills. However, this one is not only relatively straightforward but laboriously dull. Based on a Chandler estate-approved novel, “The Black-Eyed Blonde,” Marlowe is visited by the femme fatale Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) to find her missing lover, Nico Peterson (Francois Arnaud), despite the fact that he had been declared dead and cremated. As with any Marlowe plot, this goes all the way to the top including Cavendish’s wealthy actress mother (Jessica Lange), a vicious club manager (Danny Huston – a casting that nods to Huston’s father John’s role in “Chinatown”), and gangster Lou Hendricks (Alan Cumming) and his trusty driver Cedric (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
Neeson’s Marlowe drives from person to person interviewing side characters, with each spitting well-worn noir yarn. None of Monahan’s script feels organic, rather just pastiche on top of a pastiche. Turn the dial on the tone just a notch, and the film could easily be played as a parody of the genre. Also missing is any tension between the characters. Kruger is trying her best to imbue her femme fatale with sensuality, but that is a one-way street as Neeson is basically a wall to all his acting counterparts. Even when Jessica Lange is going ham on a horse, there was more tension on whether the horse was going to throw her off than what was happening on screen.
There does not seem to be an emotional investment for Neil Jordan beyond the genre exercise. Jordan is no stranger to noir, making some of the quintessential neo-noirs in “The Crying Game” and “Mona Lisa.” Any joy that could be extracted from “Marlowe” derives from Jordan’s excess in style. His camera is fluid as he tries to use yellow and black the way Fritz Lang uses black and white. But, like the screenplay, his version of Hollywood is derivative.
Many people forget that Chandler was writing about contemporary times when he was writing his Marlowe novels. The seedy underbelly and political corruption that Marlowe often uncovers were pointing to some sort of societal or personal truth. “Marlowe” has no sense of tangibility. Everything about the movie is made pursuant to what came before it. And even then, it is absent all pleasures that are usually derived from the genre. With the newer and more contemporary detective characters taking the mantle, maybe it’s time for the character of Philip Marlowe to retire.