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Marlowe Liam Neeson.jpg

Review: ‘Marlowe’ is One of the Biggest Disappointments of 2023 So Far

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | March 21, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | March 21, 2023 |

Marlowe Liam Neeson.jpg

Nobody wants to make a bad film. Even the all-time greats slip up now and then. Sometimes, a project comes along with seemingly limitless potential and an ensemble of talents that promises an absolute slam dunk. But nothing is guaranteed. This brings us to Marlowe, the latest film from the Oscar-winning filmmaker Neil Jordan, based on the iconic noir detective previously brought to life by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, and Elliott Gould. The director of The Crying Game knows a thing or two about reinventing the hard-bitten crime tale, and now he’s reunited with his Michael Collins leading man, Liam Neeson. What could go wrong? Well, how long have you got?

Marlowe came and went from American theaters in a flash, dumped in the February season where films go to be forgotten. In the U.K., it’s a Sky Cinema exclusive, which means I got to watch it from the comfort of my couch. It feels a touch futile to review it now, but criticism isn’t designed to promote a film, so I’m here to dissect one of my biggest disappointments of 2023 so far. I really did want this one to be good, you guys!

Marlowe features the eponymous P.I. on the hunt for a dead man. Glamorous heiress Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) wants to find her missing lover, who supposedly died outside his favorite club. Things aren’t what they seem in Hollywood in 1939. Aging movie stars hide secrets, drug lords hunt for money, and dames double cross. All in all, a classic noir, the stuff of smoke-filled rooms and bullet-ridden cars.

Noir is one of the most quintessentially American genres, a style of crime fiction that revealed the simmering darkness of a nation smothered by the Great Depression. At a time of intense cinematic censorship, noir felt like a place of much-needed ambiguity. Noir eventually gave way to parody and generational updates, each consumed with the sociological examination of their era. One of the reasons that Robert Altman’s own Marlowe adaptation, The Long Goodbye, works so well is because it was a ’70s tale that stripped noir of its stylizations in favour of the languid paranoia of its decade.

One would imagine that Neil Jordan would know how to handle such material, given his experiences with films like The Crying Game and Mona Lisa, two excellent examples of savvy subversions of crime fiction. Yet this entire film feels oddly uncomfortable with itself. The dialogue is overcooked, wannabe noir banter that is delivered awkwardly by almost every actor. The production design is undeniably striking but everything feels too clean, too new, for such a grimy story (and it’s all clearly not America, with the exteriors being shot in Spain and the interiors in Dublin.) Classic noir plots are often hilariously labyrinthine, but this one is perfunctory to the point of blandness. If you don’t guess the conclusion by the final act, you might be asleep.

It’s often said, to the point of parody, that some of the best actors can do good work in their sleep, but in the case of Liam Neeson, he seems to have been comatose for the past decade of his career. There are exceptions, but largely the Irish star has been slumming it in sloppy action titles that have sapped him of his intensity and grit. Casting him as Philip Marlowe makes sense on paper, especially a version of the P.I. who is older, wearier, and fighting against a changing world. In practice, it’s another half-awake don’t-give-a-shit performance from an actor who has long given up trying, even for an old colleague like Neil Jordan. It doesn’t help that the film has little interest in exploring the concept of an aged Marlowe, and throws younger women at him to force Neeson to feign vague desire in their general direction (it’s been a long time since I’ve seen two actors so bereft of chemistry as Neeson and Kruger, who is truly terrible here.) This guy’s just a bad detective! Brief fight scenes are shot with jittery editing to conceal the slowness of a 70-year-old man who doesn’t want to be there. Indeed, most of the cast seem to know this film isn’t working, although at least Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming are committed to their broadness.

One or two scenes shine with the potential of something interesting, such as a journey through the darkly lit hallways of a seedy nightclub with the haze of a drug trip. With noir, it’s easy to be reverential of its tropes, and Jordan seems all too enamored with those familiar quirks. You get the sense he’s so focused on the sets, the costumes, the spats, to create true intrigue with the plot. It’s tough to forgive a noir that doesn’t grip you, much less one that doesn’t even want to try. Marlowe feels caught between two eras, with its slavish devotion to 1930s aesthetics (but total lack of historical or political specificity) and smarmily winking post-modern dialogue that aims for single entendres in a way the Hays Code decade couldn’t. In one scene, Clare purrs that her husband must ‘sense something between us.’ After a pause, she adds, ‘Something sexual.’ That’s how little the film trusts its audience to get things.

Jordan at least knows where to put the camera and how to move it. That sounds like a massive insult but it’s not because way too many directors today have no idea how to block a basic scene. Here, we have a talented filmmaker who seems lost in this flabby script, accompanied by a leading man who’s eyeing the clearing of his paycheque, so the best he can do is make sure we know where to look. Great direction can elevate a terrible screenplay but it can’t make it good, and this is nowhere near Neil Jordan’s best direction. Oh well, at least we have the other Marlowe films. Go watch The Long Goodbye. That one has a cat!

Marlowe is available to watch on Sky Movies in the UK and will premiere on VOD soon elsewhere.