The biggest mystery of Marlowe is who put this disjointed effort together

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Now Playing
2 out of 5

There’s a reason why noir films have to be reinvented constantly to bring new audiences in. The traditional tropes are too recognizable: the jaded-but-principled detective, the chain-smoking femme fatale, a town honcho so corrupt he could be the devil incarnate, the hard boiled dialogue… you get the gist.

No character is more closely associated to the genre than Philip Marlowe. Created by Raymond Chandler in 1939 (The Big Sleep), the L.A.-based private detective has outlived his maker and keeps popping up in novels authorized by his estate. In film, he will be forever linked to Humphrey Bogart (even though Bogie only played the character once). My favourite incarnation is Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, in which his smarts and dogged determination are more a curse than a blessing.

Which brings us to this version of the gumshoe starring Liam Neeson, unoriginally titled Marlowe. One should celebrate that Neeson has taken a break from the increasingly terrible actioners he keeps on making, but in the words of Wiz Khalifa, this ain’t it, fam.

Based on the post-Chandler novel The Black-Eyed Blonde, the film opens with the character in question, a heiress named Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) hiring Marlowe to track down her lover, a Hollywood journeyman who seems to have vanished into thin air. It doesn’t take much digging for the detective to discover he was killed in a hit and run incident… or was he?

There’s plenty of sleights of hand, betrayals, and double crossings, all of which you can spot a mile away. Also, an abundance of stock characters who behave just as designed: the aging beauty (Jessica Lange), the mafia boss (Alan Cumming, amusing, but miscast), the police officer who covers for Marlowe (usually it’s one, but here there are two). The one bit of casting worth its salt is Danny Huston as a mob enforcer. The son of John Huston (so memorably perverse in Chinatown) he serves as a connection to a much better noir film.

For a movie so hellbent on recreating the definitive subgenre of the 1940s and early ‘50s Marlowe gets a lot wrong. Bouts of illegal activity unfold without hinting at a bigger picture (see water rights in Chinatown, high level police corruption in L.A. Confidential). The fact that this larger canvas is sprung on us almost out of nowhere near the end adds insult to injury.

One would expect more of Neil Jordan, a once great filmmaker (The Crying Game, Michael Collins — with Neeson), whose best days seem behind him. Jordan finds no help in the insubstantial script by another Hollywood mainstay who should know better, William Monaghan (Oscar winner for The Departed). The film hints at subverting the patriarchal elements that characterize the genre, but never gets around to doing it.

The performers, though, seem to be having the time of their lives. Each of them lays it on thick. Oddly, their pleasure at playacting noir types is the most compelling aspect of this misguided enterprise.

Marlowe has the gall to suggest this could be the start of a franchise a la Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot. Could have been a good idea, but not like this. ■