Actually, it is that, but it’s also something different, and something more. Usually, Neeson plays a Good Man Pushed Too Far who has to go kill a bunch of commandos or whatever who have kidnapped a family member.
But this time he’s the bad guy. Kind of. A good bad guy. Good-ish. He plays Alex Lewis, a contract killer who is exceptionally good at his job (see particular set of skills, above). We learn this early on in a graphic display of his talents, the kind of scene that makes you squirm and groan out loud.
Some of us, anyway.
Liam Neeson is a killer with a moral code
But there’s a curveball in the story, which is based on the 2003 Belgian film “The Memory of a Killer.” Alex has memory loss, and is in what at first seems like early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (his brother lives in a care home with the same diagnosis). He’s starting to get a little sloppy, unable to remember the kind of details that keep you from getting caught or, worse, killed. Medication helps some at the moment but he knows which direction this is heading.
He tries to turn down one of those one last job gigs but ends up getting roped into it anyway. But it’s a two-person hit, and part of the deal requires something that will violate the moral code we didn’t know he had till now. But it does, and of course the people who hired him are not happy about that.
Once he learns what’s really going on — really ugly stuff involving undocumented children — Alex decides to take on the entire operation in violent acts of vengeance. This gets messy because the whole thing has tentacles that reach into the power centers of El Paso, Texas, which also happens to be his hometown.
Meanwhile, Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce), an FBI agent, is trying to figure out who is killing all these people. He’s assisted by Linda Amistead (Taj Atwal), another FBI agent, and a Mexican officer, Hugo Marquez (Harold Torres). They’re not getting much help, either from local law enforcement or the feds.
At the center of things is Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci), a real-estate titan in El Paso with some quirky ideas about aging. But it’s more complex than just that.
The characters are the most important thing here
Still, this isn’t a whodunit, because we know who’s doing it — Alex is. Vincent wants to catch him, of course, but the scales of justice don’t really seem to be tipping in the good guys’ favor.
What becomes important, then, are the character studies. It’s nice to see Neeson stretch more than he does in some of these kinds of films. It’s not exactly art-house fare, but Neeson in the right project is an outstanding actor. And it’s intriguing to see him straddle the line between good and evil, although how good someone who has spent his life killing people for money can be is a legitimate question.
It’s also interesting to see Pearce in another film about memory loss — he starred in one of the best, after all, “Memento.” He goes a little heavy on the down-home Texas accent, but he always does good work, so it’s not surprising that the best scenes are the ones in which he and Neeson interact.
Bellucci’s role is odd enough to merit attention but it’s not much more than that, which leaves her with less to do. The other characters are just stock portrayals, so much so they become almost cliche.
That’s too bad. “Memory” is a good-enough movie that could have been a lot better. Neeson is to thank for most of the good. Turns out he, like his characters, does have a particular set of skills. They involve acting.
‘Memory’ 3 stars
Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★
Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★
Cast: Liam Neeson, Guy Pearce, Monica Bellucci.
Rating: Rated R for violence, some bloody images and language throughout.
Note: In theaters April 29.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Liam Neeson best part of the thriller ‘Memory’ set in El Paso