Liam Neeson finds himself and his career in an enviable position. For all those uninspired action features that litter his recent filmography, the man still makes time for peculiar projects. He has engaged a small pocket of suitable roles that are bucket list features for some of the more seasoned Hollywood veterans. Just like Warren Beatty essentially warning Hollywood they will have to prise Dick Tracy from his cold, dead, hands, each actor has a role they can gun for and make their own. Philip Marlowe has not hit the screens in some time. Not since the Czech comedy Smart Philip, and even longer since a serious turn in the James Caan-led Poodle Springs. Back to basics for Marlowe, then, which sees Neeson brood his way through a well-cast, poorly-delivered detective thriller.
Heartbreaking it may be for the returning partnership of Neeson and Neil Jordan, it was hardly going to be another Michael Collins, was it? For all the great casting that surrounds Neeson, from the indomitable presence of Diane Kruger and the integral work Jessica Lange does to provide the Clare and Dorothy Cavendish duo a real presence, it does not come off too grand. It strives for greatness in its eagerly lit, vaguely simple set designs that will haul L.A. Noire to the forefront of the mind. Smoke-clad rooms filled with flirty dialogue and wandering characters are seemingly given little direction are frequent. But they are also engaging in that noire way that now feels like a glimmer in the eye of old veterans rather than a frequently showcased genre.
Parts throughout Marlowe show a confused Neeson, seemingly figuring out that he is, indeed, on the set of this Raymond Chandler-penned continuation. Never quite dull, not truly engaging, Marlowe straddles between two nonchalant places and details very little. Neeson is fine as ever, but even with his presence, the trickling mysteries of Mexico and a dwindling story make it hard to fully engage with this Jordan-directed feature. He has taken a sharp turn toward the dull back-and-forth of conversations, but the low-hanging shots and flippant nature of the direction, shaking itself from sharp and forthright to clumsy and conventional, is an erratic period. It makes Marlowe stand out in the mind, but not for the right reasons. Flashbacks and the fortunes of the past pair nicely with the slow crawl camera across sparkling chequered floors. A contrast is drawn but Jordan forgets to expand on it, to incorporate it into a lazy mystery.
Playing out like that Rockstar video game, from sound cues to overarching placement of characters, their lives and their deaths, Marlowe struggles to shoulder itself in to the long-running adaptations. Still, having Neeson fend off gardening staff at a place he has, quite clearly, broken into, is quite the ride. Utterly riddled with stereotypes of the time, from Buick’s and Broadway to the whisky flasks of the trilby-wearing detectives, there is accepting the time and engaging it, and then there is Marlowe. Safe they may be in the hands of Neeson, his dependability and longevity on the screen are what keep this shifty period piece alive, and despite all the big sets and dreams of paradise, Marlowe is far from it great.