This week, Liam Neeson picks up where Humphrey Bogart, Elliot Gould, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, and few others left off, playing one of the original hard-boiled noir detectives, Philip Marlowe. The pulp novelist Raymond Chandler created Marlowe back in the 1920s, but Neeson is playing him in Marlowe, an adaptation of The Black-Eyed Blonde, a nouveau Marlowe homage written in 2014 by John Banville under the pen name “Benjamin Black” (“noir” means “black,” get it?).
In bringing Neeson’s Taken baggage to an adaptation of Marlowe fan-fiction, in one sense, Marlowe is kind of a knockoff of a knockoff, pop culture simply metastasizing reflexively from era to era as it tends to do. Yet in another, and I imagine Marlowe director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) knew what he was doing here, Marlowe is a weirdly perfect synthesis of American antiheroes.
If early 20th century fiction gave us the “hard-boiled detective,” as personified by Marlowe and a handful of other detectives, the aughts gave us “the shadowy (ex-)operator,” as personified by Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, and arguably most of all, Liam Neeson. I write Liam Neeson here and not “Bryan Mills,” Neeson’s character in Taken, because the larger universe of ex-operator fiction encompassed far more movies, and was connected more by Neeson the actor than any character he was playing. Hence why Key & Peele never used “Bryan Mills” in their valet sketches (“Don’t even try and be Russian around Liam Neesons!”).
The popularity of these figures must say something about the culture that produces them, and in the thirties, we loved seeing a self-avowed “working stiff,” a functional alcoholic who was “just doing his job” get caught up in the various plots and schemes of rich folks, femmes fatale, and shadowy cabals (the 1930s being a particularly hot time for shadowy cabals). He generally listened more than he talked, was good with a quip, and didn’t shrink before the kinds of symbols and totems of wealth and power the wealthy and powerful generally expected people to.
During the War On Terror, that character just had to also be some kind of ex-special forces spook, a troop who was more than just a troop, now happily retired and focused more on his immaculate flower gardens or whatever. The fantasy here being, I suppose, that the covert warfighters we sent out to do our dirty business at the time were prodigies at carving order from chaos. A doomsday prepper who spent his days building immaculate dollhouse furniture from the comfort of his meticulously booby-trapped house was the ideal aughts anti-hero.
The private dick and the retired operator were probably more alike than they were different, however, both monk-like and secretly romantic behind the misanthropic, jaded and gruff exteriors, with a Victorian sense of morality and a soft spot for women. Naturally, they could also beat people up.
In Marlowe, Liam Neeson is probably a little old for a noir detective, but he’s the perfect age to play Liam Neeson, who is canonically always a little too old for any role he’s playing. Marlowe is in his office full of harsh shadows one day when in walks Clare Cavendish, played by Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds), who wants him to find her disappeared lover, Nico Peterson (Francois Arnaud). Peterson may or may not have been run over by a car in front of the private club where they met. Trying to find out the truth puts Marlowe on a collision course with the head of the club, played by the terminally theatrical Danny Huston (perfectly cast), a put-upon homicide detective played by Ian Hart, the city’s main mafia character played by Alan Cumming, and most of all, Clare’s ex-silent film superstar mother, Dorothy Cavendish, played by Jessica Lange.
In practice, Marlowe mostly drives from place to place having wry little dialogues with people and occasionally beating people up. Unlike Neeson’s Taken and post-Taken output, martial arts and fisticuffs aren’t really the point. Most of the interactions last only a few punches, which is a lot less straining on the viewer’s disbelief suppressor. The dialogue also seems more like the main attraction here, and while the verbose script (from screenwriter William Monahan) isn’t especially naturalistic, it is mostly enjoyable. Basically, instead of growling threats, Neeson mostly flirts with dangerous women and verbally spars with dangerous men, in between philosophizing with cops and fellow dicks while pushing his fedora forward and backward on his head, as the situation requires.
Think: a more genteel Taken with a literary bent and period costumes. The plot, involving drugs, a studio head-turned-ambassador, and a plaster mermaid smuggled from Mexico, isn’t exactly Chinatown, but it’s just interesting enough to keep watching even without 100% buy-in.
Marlowe is a little gorier than you imagine an original Chandler adaptation would’ve been, with a little more punching, and Marlowe has now been retconned as a veteran of the battle of the Somme. This manages to suit both our modern conception of the antihero as an ex-troop, and comes basically straight from Raymond Chandler’s own bio.
It would be overly generous to Marlowe, which I don’t envision being a smash hit, to call it a fitting capstone to the era of the post-Taken antihero, though that style has gotten a little stale and the mantle has mostly been taken over by Gerard Butler. Marlowe is largely a nostalgia play for noir lovers, though it does seem fitting that the updated version of Taken Liam Neeson is less special forces superman and more working stiff at the mercy of financially motivated forces beyond his control.
‘Marlowe’ is only in theaters, February 15th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.