When the surprise 2008 hit Taken grossed nearly nine times its budget worldwide, Liam Neeson, then 56, became the go-to guy for a very specific genre: the Old-Man Action Movie.
This isn’t to say that 56 is particularly old—here and elsewhere, I’m using “old” as a descriptive, not a pejorative—and other aging action stars have made plenty of action movies as older men. But Neeson is the first undisputed king of the micro-genre since Charles Bronson made the first Death Wish at 53. Neeson is perfectly suited for The Old-Man Action Movie, which we might define as “older gent takes down nasty villains, typically a bit younger, by inflicting righteous violence upon them in the pursuit of protecting someone younger and more vulnerable.”
Taken itself spawned two sequels, in 2012 and 2014. Additionally, there was The Next Three Days (old man helps slightly younger man break his wife out of prison), The Grey (old man vs. wolves), Unknown (coma-awoken old man vs. the guy who stole his life), Non-Stop (old man air marshal vs. terrorists), A Walk Among the Tombstones (old PI vs. drug kingpin), Run All Night (old hit man vs. old friend), The Commuter (old commuter vs. a byzantine conspiracy that I couldn’t describe if you paid me to despite having seen the movie), Cold Pursuit (old snowplow man vs. drug dealers), Honest Thief (old man vs. crooked FBI agents), The Marksman (old rancher vs. the cartel), The Ice Road (old trucker vs. ice), and Blacklight (old man vs. a different set of crooked FBI agents).
Neeson is now almost 70, and Memory is the next, logical step in the Old-Man Action Movie: old cartel hit man vs. Alzheimer’s.
Neeson stars as Alex Lewis, a paid killer for the cartels who is suffering from memory loss thanks to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He has to write information about his hits on his arms with a Sharpie, like Guy Pearce’s character in Memento. Pearce himself plays Vincent Serra, an FBI agent frustrated by the ways in which the bureau is stifling his efforts to find the men responsible for trafficking young women up from south of the border into prostitution and abuse by wealthy, white Americans.
When Lewis is asked to kill a young girl rescued by Serra, whose sexual abuse implicates the son of Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci), he refuses and warns them against taking action against the girl. When they kill her anyway he goes rogue, taking out the cartel’s operatives.
All of this is a pretty straightforward Taken clone. Where Memory complicates matters is by having Lewis forget important, plot-related things, like “where he stashed the proof” and “who he is trying to kill now.” The memory loss is, generally, annoyingly convenient in the way that such things have to be for a movie like this to work.
I frequently enjoy the work of director Martin Campbell, the sort of studio staple who can easily float between franchises (he directed GoldenEye and Casino Royale) and high-concept stuff; last year’s The Protégé, starring Maggie Q, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Keaton, was underwatched and a bit underappreciated, thanks to the pandemic. That flick has some plotting issues—I remember finding most everyone’s motivations vaguely dubious—but it is unapologetically bloody and violent and has a decent amount of style to it, the action scenes well-choreographed, the camera moves fluid.
The action in Memory is more stilted, less dynamic. For instance, there’s a big shootout in a garage that was clearly stitched together in the editing bay, just a bunch of shot-reverse shots. It feels like a movie that was put together hastily and saddled with COVID-era restrictions.
One last note: It’s always nice to see Guy Pearce, one of my favorite actors. He plays Serra with a kind of dirty grace, stringy hair and mustache hiding a reservoir of decency. It remains a mystery to me that he never quite broke through in America to become a huge star: He’s had some great roles, he does well in both character and starring parts, he has genuine charisma and sharp eyes, simultaneously penetrating and caring.