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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
James Verniere

Movie review: 'Marlowe' a tepid take on classic noir

“Marlowe” is an adaptation of the 2014 book “The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel” by Irish novelist and Booker Award winner John Banville (“Doctor Copernicus”), writing as his pseudonymous other self Benjamin Black. It is a detective story set in 1939 Los Angeles, featuring Raymond Chandler’s immortal modern-day knight errant of hard-boiled crime fiction Philip Marlowe, played by Irish actor Liam Neeson.

As he has before, Marlowe gets mixed up with a femme fatale in this case one Clare Cavendish (Diane Kruger), an unhappily married heiress, who assigns Marlowe to find her dead lover Nico Peterson (Francois Arnaud). Her lover was run over in front of the ultra-posh Corbata Club, where the rich ride horses, rent back rooms and the obvious scoundrel Floyd Hanson (Danny Huston) runs things. Peterson’s head was, we are told, crushed “like a pumpkin.”

But Clare believes she has recently seen Peterson on the street in Tijuana, where he sometimes went to collect things to stock the prop house at Pacific Pictures, where he works. Clare has a mother named Dorothy Cavendish (Jessica Lange), who is even richer and more femme fatale-like than her daughter. Even though he is a gumshoe, Marlowe is friendly terms with L.A. cops like Joe Green (Ian Hart) and Bernie Ohls (Colm Meaney). One of Marlowe’s problems, besides Clare and her mother, is a two-man Mexican death squad, who are also after Peterson and a harbinger of murderous cartels to come.

“Marlowe” was directed by the great Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”). The adaptation was completed by the Academy Award-winning Boston screenwriter William Monahan (“The Departed”). The film has a splendid cast. So why is “Marlowe” dead on arrival? For one thing, everyone seems too old. Neeson, who has made three “Taken” films playing former CIA agent Bryan Mills, doesn’t connect with Chandler’s unapologetically heroic and notably insolent character. The dialogue is often awkwardly literary. Did I hear bongos on the soundtrack? Why is the elevator in the building housing Marlowe’s office like the ones in Europe? The answer is that the L.A.-set film was shot in Barcelona and Dublin. I must say I was surprised by this because the CGI folks worked overtime making palm trees and oil derricks. The view from the hills where Marlowe owns a house looked accurate.

“Marlowe” deliberately evokes the classic of this form and period, Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece “Chinatown” with Jack Nicholson as the Marlowe-like J.J. Gittes. Humphrey Bogart was the iconic screen Marlowe in “The Big Sleep” (1946). Marlowe has also been played by Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, Robert Montgomery, James Garner and Elliott Gould in the Robert Altman 1970s-set “The Long Goodbye.” Neeson’s Marlowe meets Dorothy Cavendish at the Garden of Allah, where she is lecturing a waiter about tea-making. She tells Marlowe that she once had to pretend that her daughter was her niece.

Marlowe takes a lot of beatings. He gives a few. But all this meta-playing around cannot hide the fact that “Marlowe” is weak tea. “Babylon” is so much better at exposing Hollyweird. Not even Billie Holiday singing in the background or Alan Cumming as a closeted gay villain can fix this, although Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a hoot as a Tommy-gun toting chauffeur named Cedric. If the film had been about the hard-boiled misadventures of Marlowe and Cedric, it might have been so much better.



Grade: C

Rated: R (for language, violent content, some sexual material and brief drug use)

Running time: 1:50

How to watch: Now in theaters


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