Greetings again from the darkness. The great Raymond Chandler created the now iconic Private Investigator, Philip Marlowe. Over many years, we have gotten to know Marlowe through novels and film adaptations. Actors as varied as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, and Elliott Gould have played the cynical P.I., and now Oscar winning writer-director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME, 1996) has added Liam Neeson to the list. Oscar winning writer William Monahan (THE DEPARTED, 2006) adapted the screenplay from John Banville’s (writing as Benjamin Black) 2014 novel, “The Black-Eyed Blonde”.
It’s 1939 in Los Angeles when Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger) strolls into Marlowe’s (Neeson) office and hires him to find Nico Peterson (Francois Arnaud). Simple enough, only there’s a catch (of course): Nico has been declared dead and the body identified by a relative. Adding to the intrigue (of course) is Clare (she prefers to be called Cavendish) herself, the daughter of powerful former film star Dorothy Cavendish (played by two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange, TOOTSIE, BLUE SKY). As you would expect, the case leads Marlowe to cross paths with many ‘bad’ folks and a few instances of danger, which he (of course) manages to maneuver or outmaneuver.
The supporting cast is strong and includes Colm Meaney, Alan Cumming (with a southern accent?), Danny Huston (a nod to his father’s noir classic CHINATOWN?), and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. A couple of things are unfortunately quite clear. First, every noir cliché and trope is included here; and second, Liam Neeson is not the guy to pull off the Marlowe role – unless it was a full-on parody, in which case, he might have been a better fit. If he has put forth any effort into the role, it was apparently to ensure that his Marlowe is the least memorable one ever. There is no personal stamp on the role, and because of that, nothing really clicks here.
On the upside, the set decorations and costumes are divine. The film has the right look, but just brings nothing new or exciting to one of my favorite genres. It’s a throwback to hard-boiled detective crime stories of the 1940’s without the grit or charm. Marlowe first appeared in Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel, “The Big Sleep”, and most iterations bring something new to the character or story. Perhaps the only thing director Jordan serves here is a shootout near the end. It’s more drawn out and noisy than what we would have seen 80 years ago, and it’s probably the right choice for today’s audience.
Greetings again from the darkness. “I’m all in!” That’s a gambling phrase of which even the most risk-averse amongst us recognizes. When Blackjack addict Jim Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) goes all in, which he does every time, it’s more proof that he is “the kind of guy that likes to lose” … a description offered by one of the mobsters and loan sharks who lend him money.
Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) deliver a remake of the very cool 1974 film of the same title starring James Caan and written by James Toback. Wahlberg is spot on as the self-destructive gambler who, rather than live for the thrill of winning, seems intent on pushing the envelope of misery and turmoil. His character manages to go seriously in debt to the Koreans who run the underground gambling establishments, as well as ruthless gangster Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”), and a philosophical mobster (a bald John Goodman) doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation. These are three guys most of us would avoid at all costs.
Unfortunately, it’s a bit more challenging to accept Wahlberg as the rebellious writing prodigy with a privileged background, who articulates in a motor-mouthed rapid-fire onslaught of derisive observations meant to prove how he so despises mediocrity. It’s obvious Wahlberg is “all in” for this role, but it’s difficult not to compare to the more nuanced performance of Caan forty years ago.
Brie Larson (so great in Short Term 12) plays the bright student in Wahlberg’s class, but her role is so limited we are left to only imagine the heights of her talent. Anthony Kelley plays Lamar, a college basketball player ripe for Wahlberg’s world, and Andre Braugher has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene as the college dean. Richard Schiff offers up some comic relief as a pawn broker making Wahlberg’s misery just a tad worse. The great George Kennedy plays Wahlberg’s dying grandfather in the film’s opening scene, and he is the first to provide warning on the mess his grandson has created.
Jessica Lange does a wonderful job as Wahlberg’s estranged mother who is filled with both scorn and sadness at the state of her son, and offers up one last bag of cash in an attempt to allow him to begin anew. The support work is strong across the board, but it’s Goodman who stands out, both with dialogue and a physical presence that deserves some type of award for personal courage and lack of inhibition. His monologue on “F.U. money” is worth the price of admission, though you may request a refund after seeing him shirtless in the sauna.
There is a distinctive style to the film, though at times it comes across as a Scorcese wannabe. From a soundtrack perspective, the diversity of music ranges from classical to folk to big band, with some of the lyrics acting as commentary on the story. The film is pretty entertaining as you watch, but leaves an emptiness once it’s over. With so much that works, it’s a shame it all disappears so quickly … just like money on a Blackjack table.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need a lesson on “F.U. Money” OR you need proof that a shirtless movie star is not always a pleasant thing
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking gambling tips OR your ears burn when exposed to profanity