In retrospect, it’s remarkable how long a shadow Taken has cast. It’s been 14 years since director Pierre Morel redefined Liam Neeson’s place in cinema with his 2008 film, which cast the dramatic actor against type as an ex-CIA operative and combat powerhouse. Since then, too many action films starring Neeson have followed the steps of a familiar dance. His peaceful domestic life is shattered when something is taken from him: His daughter is kidnapped (Taken), and so is his ex-wife (Taken 2), who’s then murdered in Taken 3. Or his son is murdered (Cold Pursuit), he loses his job (The Commuter), or his family moves on without him (Unknown). In each case, a long-buried history of clinically effective violence is unearthed, and for about two hours, Neeson makes the criminal element sorry they ever thought picking on a guy in his 60s would be easy. Memory is the latest of these films, and at first, it seems like it’s capable of subverting the formula. Then it slowly settles into tired mimicry.
Memory begins with a slight inversion of the Neeson Action Formula: This time, he’s one of the bad guys, kind of. Neeson plays Alex Lewis, a world-class assassin who takes jobs from some of the worst people in the world. When he’s asked to do the one thing you never ask an action hero to do — kill a kid — Neeson turns on his employers. As he becomes a vigilante determined to make them pay, he’s hunted by both sides, with criminals and law enforcement coming at him along the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. His chief pursuer: FBI agent Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce), who’s after the same guys Alex is.
Memory’s big swerve is that Alex is in a race against time. His health is deteriorating, and he’s suffering from memory loss, a harbinger of severe cognitive decline to come. This means he isn’t just out to punish a crime syndicate for crossing a line; he’s trying to symbolically atone for a life of ill-gotten gains while he’s still capable of taking meaningful action.
On its own, Memory is a tepid thriller, competently made. Journeyman director Martin Campbell has reliably delivered exciting action sequences in films running the gamut from extraordinary (the 2006 James Bond reboot Casino Royale) to surprising (Jackie Chan’s 2017 Taken riff The Foreigner) to forgettable (2021’s Maggie Q vehicle The Protégé). In terms of the actual action, Memory is firmly a lesser work from Campbell, who seems more interested this time around in ineffective melodrama than in physical conflict. The promise of any Liam Neeson action movie is Liam Neeson committing startling acts of brutality, but Memory follows Alex around as he threatens a lot of people with violence while only occasionally committing any.
Neeson reads as if he’s operating in the same mode of desperate competence he originally perfected in Taken. Yet in Memory, the thrill is gone — his intensity is no longer surprising, and as committed as Neeson is to remaining onscreen and present for most of his character’s stunts, his limitations appear more apparent than usual, given Campbell’s clear shot blocking and the clean cuts that stitch the film’s action scenes together so neatly. Arguably, the film suffers from these two men being too good at their jobs, so one’s commitment overexposes the others’ shortcomings.
More compelling is Guy Pearce’s weary Agent Serra, who at times serves as the de facto protagonist when Memory’s script demands that Alex disappear for a while. Serra’s investigation into Alex’s criminal employers is the one place where Memory makes anything approaching a compelling statement, even if it’s a shopworn one about the institution of law enforcement and the ways it’s used to enforce the status quo more than to find justice.
Memory’s most fascinating aspect ultimately lies outside of the film itself, if it’s read as a meta-commentary on Neeson’s action oeuvre. As Alex, Neeson is portraying a man who knows he can’t continue being the kind of person Neeson has played across so many movies. The film plays better — but only slightly — if viewers consider the comments Neeson made in early 2021 about being ready to retire from this kind of film after only a few more (presumably Memory and his forthcoming thriller Retribution).
In many of these films, Neeson has been an unlikely avatar for white upper-class male rage. The appeal of his late-career turn as an action star is a direct result of the dissonance between his well-mannered demeanor and the violence these characters commit. His sonorous voice — which has led to a long voice-acting career and frequent casting in mentor-type roles — doesn’t belie the brutality these characters all eventually give way to. Under this reading, Neeson’s action movies are about the order whiteness and wealth has imposed on the world, the male sense of entitlement to that order, and the violence lurking beneath it, aimed at anyone who tries to disrupt it. It started with a film called Taken, and it’s no coincidence that most of these films are incited by a man feeling robbed.
This is curious, because these films are never about the theft of possessions — they’re about losing other people and losing status. The lives of his many characters’ loved ones are on the line, but often so is the sense of possession and control these men felt over their lives. They all have a sense of ownership extending over their family members, their jobs, and their right to cut out the middleman of law enforcement and kill people.
Memory is not Liam Neeson’s final action film, and it won’t be the one that defines him. But it’s worth considering as his tenure of mannered cinematic vengeance slowly comes to a close. In this case, it’s with a character suddenly attempting to atone for the man he’s been, right before his own history evaporates from his mind. It isn’t terribly convincing — even though Alex Lewis confesses that he’s been a bad guy, Memory is still built around the thrill of seeing that bad guy unleashed. There is little that suggests Alex Lewis is all that different from Bryan in the Taken movies, or any of Neeson’s other violent avatars. It’s worth remembering this era of cinema, and everything it says about specifically male fantasies and male rage. But it isn’t necessarily worth remembering Memory itself.
Memory opens in theaters on April 29.
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