Directed by Neil Jordan
Written by William Monahan
Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, Danny Huston, Adewale Akinnouye Agbaje, Jessica Lange
Release Date February 15th, 2023
Published February 27th, 2023
Marlowe is a stunningly mediocre film. An attempt to bring back the feel of 40s noir detective novels, in the vain of Raymond Chandler, using Chandler's creation, Detective Phillip Marlowe, Marlowe wanders, stumbles, plods and trips over oodles of over pronounced dialogue and a dimwitted 'mystery.' How bad is Marlowe? Bad enough that it made me wonder if I've ever found Liam Neeson entertaining. Seriously, I had to convince myself that I really did like the Taken movies. I think I did. I think... yeah. Neeson could not be more miscast in the role of a 1930s gumshoe in Los Angeles.
Marlowe opens on a completely meaningless visual. A man is pacing back and forth dictating some odd thing to an attentive secretary. You think the man speaking is Marlowe and the secretary is his Girl Friday, the go-to gal, that reliable female pal from past detective movies. Nope, that's not Marlowe or his secretary. It's also not someone that the actual Phillip Marlowe is peeping in on for a case. So, why did we open on this visual? God help me, I have no idea. It's a completely disconnected visual. It's a seeming recreation from past Marlowe films and novels that I assume director Neil Jordan recreated simply to evoke Marlowe's of the past.
The reveal of the actual Marlowe comes with the introduction of our Femme Fatale, that dangerous female client with the case that will test our detective's metal. Diane Kruger is our femme fatale in Marlowe and with her platinum blonde hair and tight dress, she certainly has the visual from a Phillip Marlowe mystery down pat. Sadly, she and Marlowe, as played by Liam Neeson, have to speak and when they do, the hard boiled dialogue turns both actors into unintentionally comedic characters. There is a particular cadence to Raymond Chandler mysteries and neither Neeson or Kruger have that kind of cadence. In their mouths, these words come off like people stating written dialogue out loud and not the natural speech of two people who speak like this all the time.
So, we're off to a bad start and things aren't going to get much better. Thankfully, it can't get much worse. The central mystery of Marlowe surrounds a missing man, the lover of Diane Kruger's character, Nico Peterson, played by Francois Arnaud. Nico works in a movie prop house and he uses that as a cover for smuggling cocaine on behalf of a gangster, named Lou Hendriks (Alan Cumming), though he may also be working for a secret drug dealer named Floyd Hanson (Danny Huston), the owner of a resort who doesn't want anybody to know that drugs and sex work are his real professions.
Is Nico alive or did he fake his death? You likely won't care as the movie fails to invest much in the mystery of Marlowe. In fairness, the mystery of many Raymond Chandler stories is often secondary to the lurid feel, the trappings of the seedy setting, and Chandler's love of rich, thick, dialogue. Chandler characters love to talk and Chandler invented his own gangster cadence that became as much of a draw as his mystery plots. You feel smarter reading Chandler because you have to be able to parse his hardboiled dialogue to get at the heart of what is happening in the story.
This was true only of novels actually published by Raymond Chandler and the films that spawned from actual Chandler properties. The sad reality of Marlowe is that it originates as a knock off. The novel on which Marlowe was based was actually written by author John Banville and was written in 2014. In the style of Raymond Chandler is a nice idea but falters vastly in execution. Marlowe is, essentially, a copy of a copy. And a poor copy at that.
I was rather shocked to find out that the great director, Neil Jordan was behind the camera for Marlowe. This was shocking because the film is so blindingly banal. In production design and camerawork, there is absolutely nothing distinctive about Marlowe. Much like the way Liam Neeson plays Phillip Marlowe, there is no personality to the direction of Marlowe. The set ups are mundane, the camerawork is professional but not at all interesting and the overall design of the film, is incredibly beige. Where Chandler used the heat of a former desert turned into a bustling metropolis to create a sense of sweaty, gritty, sexy, atmosphere, Neil Jordan renders it all beige. Just kind of beige.
Of all the actors to try and play Phillip Marlowe on screen, Liam Neeson is possibly the worst. Naturally, he was always going to pale in comparison to the ultimate movie Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart, but I feel personally offended even trying to compare Neeson's mumble mouthed, slouchy and dull performance to Bogart's electric, charming, and charismatic conception of Phillip Marlowe. Bogart is Marlowe, Liam Neeson is playing Marlowe and the difference is stark and deeply unflattering to the talent of Liam Neeson.
I recently wrote about how Bogart as Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep was the soul of America at the time, a weary, hardy, troubled soul who has seen it all and keeps bouncing back. Bogart's Marlowe existed as the thin line between civil society and the chaotic criminal underbelly of America. He existed to hold the line between the two with only his strong moral code and gut instinct. That moral code boiled down to not letting bad people take advantage of good people if he could stop it. It was a simple ethos but it defined Bogart's Marlowe nearly as much as Howard Hawks' flawless direction created the world for Marlowe to exist so brilliantly within.
A Phillip Marlowe movie requires a great deal of care and attention to detail. Marlowe appears to have been directed as a favor owed by Neil Jordan and with all the conviction of an unwelcome task. The direction is lazy, tossed off, and perfunctory. It has polish only because Neil Jordan is a professional, he's capable of knocking out a professional level effort in his sleep. A good solid nap is a good metaphor for this movie as in, the lead actor looks like he needs a nap and the movie made me want to take one while I watched it.
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