Marlowe is an Uneven but Enjoyable L.A. Noir

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Beginning, as most noir stories do, in a detective’s office. In enters the striking heiress Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), seeking to hire the famed private investigator Philip Marlowe (Liam Neeson) to find her missing lover, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud). These familiar beats are established efficiently and with a breeze of frictionless storytelling that makes for pleasant viewing to begin a film, but makes for a shaky foundation to build a twisty detective caper. Based not on Raymond Chandler’s series of novels, but the 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville, the film feels notably modern while inside the familiar world of the famed detective, making for a unique watch.

Marlowe (2023) has the presentation early on of a Sunday matinee theatre film, which makes the sudden shift with a quite gnarly sequence in its first act even more jarring. It destabilises the film, which could be an interesting choice to move the audience into an unexpected place, but these two styles run on parallel tracks throughout the film. L.A. noir stories are often about the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood system, so these juxtaposed styles could reinforce that concept, but in Marlowe they lessen the impact of each other completely.

The performances are solid all round, especially in the smaller side characters headlined by Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming, but is let down by a lacking lead performance by Neeson, who is still within his post-Taken mode that feels out of place for a Marlowe role. While Robert Mitchum’s performance of Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) was hard-nosed and rough as sandpaper, there was still the famed character’s wisecracking and philosophising that made him beloved. Whether these changes have been ground down with this much older Marlowe is unclear, as the film focuses on addressing his age physically, not emotionally or mentally. It’s difficult to separate the previous Marlowe performances here, but it’s those changes that flatten the film as a whole.

Liam Neeson in Marlowe

A causal change with this flat Neeson performance is the lack of chemistry he has with Diane Kruger, which should be the igniting spark for the whole film. An underwritten femme fatale part is a staple in the noir genre, usually buoyed by the filmmaking and dynamic chemistry with the detective, neither of which are serviced to Kruger, who should be the standout element of the film.

Philip Marlowe has always been a compelling literary and screen character throughout the years due to his iron moral backbone being constantly put up against the rapidly shifting immorality of old Hollywood. This is shown in flashes in Marlowe – it will never grow tiring to see the villain attempt to bribe the unflappable detective – but the portrayal here is focused on Marlowe’s desire to either retire or return to the police force for a more stable life. While unique for a screen portrayal of the character through its source material, this forces the film into a thematically inert corner that does not make for engaging cinema.

The film’s strange mixture of modern sensibilities (graphic violence, modern dialogue, handheld camerawork) inside of a period setting makes it a fascinating but not always engaging watch. The final act devolves into a strangely modern action spectacle – equipped even with the neon-drenched scenery – that has a stronger connection to last year’s Neeson action film Memory (2022) than The Big Sleep (1946). In theory this could all work as a form of adaptation of old Hollywood noir tropes through a modern lens, but in practice Marlowe ends up a mess of contradictions that complicates what began as a charming enough Summer noir for older audiences.

Marlowe is in select theatres now.

Neeson Returns as a Grizzled Action Hero in Blacklight

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Blacklight screener provided by Rialto Distribution

Liam Neeson has long been one of Hollywood’s most dependable and compelling screen presences. In recent years, the iconic Irish actor has been working as much as he ever has, spanning many locales including Northern Canada in The Ice Road (2021) to right here in Australia for Blacklight (2022). 

Set in Washington D.C. but filmed mostly here in Melbourne (with a crucial car chase sequence shot in Canberra), the film follows Travis Block (excellent action movie name), an OCD-inflicted FBI fixer who finds himself on the tail end of a career working in the shadowy underbelly of the FBI, working directly with the director of the bureau Gabriel Robinson (Aiden Quinn). Block must reckon with his role as a shadowy figure and how that life has impacted his personal life, including his daughter Amanda (Claire van der Boom) and granddaughter Natalie (Gabriella Sengos).

The film is a serviceable action conspiracy thriller that feels perfectly of a piece with the political moment we find ourselves in. Director and co-writer Mark Williams (Ozark co-creator, Honest Thief 2020)) reunites with Neeson from a script by first-time screenwriter Nick May, a former Obama-era Justice Department attorney. 

FBI Director Gabriel Robinson (Aiden Quinn, left) and Travis Block (Liam Neeson, right)

Blacklight certainly has some moments of first-screenplay-itis, but the story is a fresh and interesting take on the modern government conspiracy thriller. There is something chilling about a former government attorney writing his first script about a J. Edgar Hoover-esque villain at the head of the FBI, an idea that will stay with you longer than any car chase.

Now, we need to talk about the action in Blacklight. Neeson, at almost 70, is a tremendous actor but is far too old to be the star of an action thriller that seems designed to have the legendary actor chase and hand-to-hand fight people a third his age. In the past, Neeson action films have revolved around the iconic star being either stationary (The Marksman (2020) or in a fast-moving vehicle (The Commuter (2018)), but here we see Neeson closer to his Taken (2008) role with foot chases and athletic explosive action sequences. Recent action films like Nobody (2021) or John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) have built around the limitations of its star to make entertaining films, something Blacklight would have benefited greatly from.

This would not have been as big an issue, however, if the film didn’t also feel so dependent on these action sequences, as Blacklight’s dialogue was not enjoyable or emotive enough to make up the action deficit. Dialogue is never too important in these movies – only Michael Mann has really perfected both sides of the coin – as it is often the thrilling action sequences that make the genre enjoyable. Unfortunately, Blacklight falters in both areas to make it as enjoyable as some of Neeson’s best action films.

Where Blacklight is most interesting is in its choice of villain and plot. This is a massive shift away from the Eastern European villain tropes from Taken and the John Wick series, centring on a conspiracy plot with an impossible to miss Hoover parallel (there is even a scene of Quinn quoting the man). It’s easy to forget that just a decade ago J. Edgar Hoover was played reverentially by Leonardo DiCaprio – as well as featuring in a truly baffling scene in Being the Ricardos (2021) – to now being essentially the villain of an action thriller who has an AOC stand-in assassinated.

While not a great film, Blacklight is an entertaining action thriller starring a legendary actor that is capable of getting any project made and elevates any material he is given. Let’s never take Liam Neeson for granted.

Blacklight will be screening in theatres nationwide from February 10th.