Film noir has long been one of my favorite genres, ever since I became interested in older movies. I am especially fascinated by morally conflicted detectives investigating complicated cases involving femme fatales during wartime. That includes entries like 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, 1946’s The Big Sleep and 1973’s The Long Goodbye. All three of these movies (as well as several others) star Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe. His stories have been adapted with some great success and now Marlowe is gracing the big screen once again, being played by Liam Neeson in Neil Jordan’s Marlowe (the screenplay is based on Benjamin Black’s 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde). Sadly, the result does not even come close to living up to the quality of those earlier Marlowe adventures, turning out to be one of his lesser cases.
Liam Neeson plays him somewhere between a world-weary private investigator and one of his “man with a particular set of skills” characters. His is miscast in the role, seeming bored most of the time. There is no sense that this Philip Marlowe likes his work or has any passion for it. He just comes off as exhausted. He certainly isn’t doing the job out of loyalty for his client (who he never displays any affinity for) or the money (which he is not concerned about) or a desire to find the truth. The latter is probably what was intended, yet he mainly appears to be going through the motions. In fact, Marlowe is not given any motivation for his actions. He is merely “the detective.” That winds up being a massive waste of the character.
The place is Los Angeles in 1939 and PI Philip Marlowe is hired to find a missing man. Of course, that gets him tangled in a web of secrets linking a movie star, a dangerous crime boss, a wealthy club owner and tons of deceit.
Generally, in this type of plot, the truth ends up being far simpler than our hero thinks. That is definitely the case in Marlowe (102 minutes, without the closing credits). Sometimes, it can be fun to see everything spin back around to the obvious solution. Unfortunately, there isn’t much fun to be had here. The adaptation by William Monahan keeps the usual setting of film noir, but loses the feel. These aren’t lost souls, doing what they must to survive. They are criminals and con-artists, with a very uncomplicated hero on their trail. These stories need a compelling lead and an entertaining rogue’s gallery of suspects to add energy. This has no energy.
Neil Jordan has also made some odd choices in terms of pacing. There are quite a few moments where Neeson’s Marlowe arrives at a location, briefly exchanges words with someone and then Jordan suddenly cuts to the next scene. These either act as a contrived way for him to learn a possibly significant piece of information without much drama or they serve no clear purpose at all. Marlowe moves in fits and starts; at some points, it is too quick for a revelation to land and at others nothing of note happens for a while. That robs it of any rhythm and makes the investigation really drag.
The supporting cast features such welcome faces as Jessica Lange, Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Diane Kruger. Nobody looks like they were enjoying themselves. There is no color here. That went away with the moral ambiguity. These are just people filling a spot in a mystery, as though doing so was an obligation. I’ve seen The Big Sleep. Marlowe is no The Big Sleep.
2 out of 5
Liam Neeson as Philip Marlowe
Diane Kruger as Clare Cavendish
Jessica Lange as Dorothy Cavendish
Danny Huston as Floyd Hanson
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Cedric
Ian Hart as Joe Green
Colm Meaney as Bernie Ohls
Alan Cumming as Lou Hendricks
Directed by Neil Jordan
Screenplay by William Monahan