Alex Lewis, Liam Neeson's latest vigilante antihero persona, faces a predicament in Memory, directed by Martin Campbell and written by Dario Scardapane. Lewis is an American assassin for hire tasked with carrying out two killings. He also has Alzheimer’s disease. His dementia is in an early enough stage that he can still function in the real world, and he does not yet need to resort to escaping to an imaginary reality. He does, though, need to make sure that he has certain things written down, especially critical information concerning his assassination contracts.
We have seen amnesiac assassins before (The Bourne Identity) and plenty of movies about Alzheimer’s, such as Iris (2001), The Savages (2007), Away From Her (2007), and The Father (2020), which won Anthony Hopkins his second Oscar. We have also had movies featuring Guy Pearce, oddly enough, about men suffering from memory loss using techniques similar to those used by Lewis in Memory in order to try to help himself remember things (Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough 2000 film Memento). What makes those films so memorable is precisely what is so lacking in Memory and what therefore makes it so instantaneously forgettable — the creation of compelling characters, the crafting of intriguing, original stories, and the serious commitment on behalf of the filmmakers to entertain and perhaps even inspire their audience, or at the very least not to bore them.
Lewis is a good guy, but whether he’s working for the good guys in this movie is not so clear, as are a number of elements in this remake of the 2003 Belgian film The Memory of a Killer based on the book De zaak Alzheimer by Jef Geeraerts. Fitting for a movie with a border detention center subplot, the story crisscrosses the U.S.-Mexico border several times before we can figure out who’s who and why everyone seems to want to kill each other. Lewis kills his first target in Guadalajara, texting afterward to an unnamed recipient “finished early. be home for dinner.”
It then takes us to El Paso, where Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce), an FBI agent in the Child Exploitation Task Force, is trying to rescue a teenage girl from her criminal father. After a violent confrontation with her father, he’s able to get her to a safe house, only to learn that a hit has been put out on her, likely by associates of her father who know that she’s a key witness to his sordid crimes. Lewis has been ordered to carry out the hit. Although he has made a career of fulfilling these kinds of assassination contracts, he believes that this one goes too far and turns down the job. “You want someone else,” he tells the person who ordered it in Mexico City. “I’m not up for it now.” The man won’t hear it: “Get up for it.” But Lewis holds firm: “I’m trying to tell you — I’m getting out.”
Lewis’s refusal causes a cascade of repercussions for the girl, for the FBI agents, for his superiors, and for himself, all of which need to be laboriously pounded out like the last few stubborn daubs of ketchup from the bottle over the course of 114 mind-numbing minutes. The Wall Street Journal once calculated that in the course of an average three-hour NFL game, only 11 minutes of action actually take place on the field. The rest of the time consists of huddling, offenses and defenses getting into their formations on the line of scrimmage, spotting the ball after plays, moving the chains, sorting through flags, and enforcing penalties. A similar calculation could be done with Memory, where the majority of the movie is swallowed up by meetings at police stations, meetings with detectives, meetings with Justice Department officials, meetings at bars, at pool tables, at swimming pools — you get the picture. At least there is some drama during NFL games, particularly when the contest is tight, while waiting for the next play to come in. The time in between plays gives fans a chance to watch replays, listen to the color commentator’s assessment of what has just transpired, and guess what play the coach will call next. In Memory, none of the downtime serves to build up any drama or tension. Instead, the never-ending parade of meetings saps whatever drama the movie may have had and turns it into a police procedural less interesting than even a subpar Law & Order or CSI episode.
Almost as bad, the dialogue sounds as if it’s been cobbled together from a cluster of other action movies and dumped into this one. “Men like us don’t retire.” “If I can’t finish this, you have to.” “I think he’s taken out the trash for us that we couldn’t.” When we hear the saying “the well’s gone dry,” we sense that it may have been the screenwriter’s unconscious confession of the limits of his own artistic imagination. Other lines sound like less eloquent phrasings of far superior dramatic and cinematic works: Macbeth’s “if it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly” becomes, in Memory, “You said this would be done quickly.” “It will.” And Gandalf’s “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” from The Lord of The Rings becomes “we all have to die, Vincent. What’s important is what you do before you go.” Talk about something being lost in translation — namely spark, emotive force, and the belief that art and entertainment should strive to inspire rather than deaden.
About two-thirds of the way through the movie, a few members of this displeased audience at the theater I was at got up from their seats and walked out. It wasn’t hard to understand why they left the movie. What’s harder to understand is how the makers of Memory could have thought they were producing something capable of keeping moviegoers in their seats in the first place.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a Washington Examiner contributing writer and the author, most recently, of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema.