Memory is a pleasantly riveting watch even as it remains a one-trick pony that’s too reliant on shallow deep state caricature.
“If I’m here, it’s gone too far,” snarls a grizzled Liam Neeson in his classically wizened schtick — for him yet another breaking-and-entering, contract-killing, witness-clearing routine in the decade-and-a-half since 2008’s Taken. The action vehicle’s hottest driver, besides the likes of Jason Statham and Bruce Willis, has been embodied so comfortably within a cultural consensus of manhunts and gun heists that his tired first appearance onscreen, in Martin Campbell’s latest, already peddles the full catalog of tropes to be expected: an assassin wanting out, a franchise sorely against it, and an aging body complicating this textbook tension. Except here, of course, it’s not really the body that’s the bitch, but the mind. Memory, billed as a film “from the director of Casino Royale” but in truth more reminiscent of Campbell’s newer iterations of the gun-toting thriller, finds Neeson as Alex Lewis, a cleaner (euphemism; see also “auditor”) dispatched to tidy up some loose ends by a nefarious criminal syndicate who desperately wants some voices silenced. The itinerary is a guy and a girl, and Neeson sticks it in the guy like old times — boy, who knew what a pain forgetting your hit list and having to write their names down on your arm is! — but finds himself unable to do the same to thirteen-year-old Patricia, a victim of sex trafficking at the hands of her own father.
Needless to say, the syndicate isn’t happy, and they’re after him; it’s really less Bond v. SPECTRE, though, and more a collusion between certain offending individuals and law enforcement and thus a collision between law enforcement and Alex. Flitting between the U.S.-Mexico border are the FBI, in particular Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce), Linda Amistead (Taj Atwal), and Hugo Marquez (Harold Torres). Dispatched to solve the unsolvable cases of missing undocumented children, they quickly stumble upon Alex, who’s offing their would-be targets and leading them straight to the crown jewel: Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci), a real-estate mogul with, other than Alex’s stubborn assertions to the contrary, zilch to tie her to the scope and atrocity of America’s sex trafficking problem. Alex knows for a fact that Davana’s behind it, and he even has her on tape proving her complicity; but, one moment, where did he last put the tape? It all unravels thanks to memory, this fickle-minded, not-many-splendored thing, and each moment lost to advanced Alzheimer’s is a moment more for rot to recuperate and the legal bureaucracy to found its relentless precepts of deferral and disavowal (remember Zodiac?) on the country’s egregious political inequity.
Campbell’s direction is indeed perfectly serviceable, and he makes the most out of both the film’s subject matter and its near-two-hour runtime to deliver a pleasantly riveting watch. In particular, having Neeson doddering and mumbling with a bullet to his side raises the viewer’s stakes in witnessing yet another criminal showdown within corporate America; it tinges the lens with a tad of realism which, were it taken to its logical conclusion, would even invoke some kind of sharp meta-commentary on your tentpole vehicle’s extended warranty. Sadly, Memory doesn’t extend itself to such a conclusion, its embittered conceit superficially manifesting as one trick (or maybe two) up Campbell’s sleeve as he devotes all creative energy, instead, to shallow caricature of the deep state: one of the non-FBI police chiefs tortures Alex on account of the latter’s alleged “cop-killing” attitude, and Davana’s thickly-accented English gels uncomfortably well with her endorsement of her own son’s pedophilic activities. “It’s all one big cocktail party up here,” she offers by way of invitation. Thing is, most who enjoy Neeson’s crime-busting outings already know this.