Debuting on the festival circuit last year before getting its theatrical release this week, Marlowe is the 100th feature film for one of cinema’s greats, Liam Neeson. And it would seem that director Neil Jordan (who previously worked with Neeson in 1996 with Michael Collins) has taken the occasion as one to celebrate not just the actor’s career, but the spectrum of roles he’s played over the years. In adapting the novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde, the pair don’t so much as make a classic film noir, but a winking, cheeky tribute by leaning into the cheesier clichés of the form.
Neeson plays the grizzled, brooding Philip Marlowe as less of a hard-nosed detective and more of a man of letters forced to exist in an era where people say words like “gams.” Even though Marlowe as a character is a part of the Southern California scenery that surrounds him, this joint production of Ireland and Spain decides to blur the lines of the character’s nationality, with Neeson affecting a gargling half-American voice to match those of his European co-stars while still retaining his Irish identity (he notes in one scene that he fought in WWI with Irish forces while the country was still under British rule).
The film opens with Marlowe being hired by Claire Cavendish (Diane Kruger), the socialite daughter of an aging Hollywood star (Jessica Lange). She commissions Marlowe to find her lover, Nico Peterson (François Arnaud), who was apparently killed in a hit-and-run accident a few weeks previous, but whom she noticed walking the streets in Tijuana since his alleged death. Enlisting the help of his former Los Angeles Police Department colleagues (Ian Hart and Colm Meaney), Marlowe works his way around the ins and outs of an elite country club and a major movie studio, trying to determine why an otherwise unremarkable property master was such a person of interest to so many parties.
But really, the mystery has almost no bearing on the proceedings. This is just an exercise in goofy, chintzy fun. I mean, for the entirety of the first scene, literally every question Neeson and Kruger ask each other is either answered with another question or a tangent that has no relevance. One of the major MacGuffins of the film is laid out pretty obviously. The entire cast gleefully chews the scenery as if it were a rich dessert, particularly Neeson, Lange, Danny Huston as the shady owner of the country club, and Alan Cumming as a gangster with an affected Southern drawl, as if Truman Capote were a mob boss. Even Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gets in on the goofiness, alternating between a Ving Rhames-esque enforcer and a Mr. Bojangles-style, ahem, “Magical” character trope when the scene calls for it.
It’s the production’s way of saying that none of this is to be taken seriously. All we’re doing is a stylistic homage, a sort of genre parody that almost posits what it would be like if Humphrey Bogart were alive today trying to make The Maltese Falcon (itself referenced in the film’s finale). There’s an inherent silliness to it all, and everyone is in on the joke. Throughout most of the proceedings, the cast finds itself about two unlucky steps away from turning to the camera to deliver a monologue as an aside to the audience. The script itself ventures close to the fourth wall a few times, with Alan Cumming noting in one scene that when he meets someone, he “prefers the back entrance,” before quickly adding, “Don’t read too much into that” in reference to his sexuality. In another, Jessica Lange pointedly tells Neeson that there comes a point in every actor’s career when they know that “their time has passed,” and whether they “take the money and run” or not, they should at least take the money. I can think of about one January/February release per year for the better part of the last decade that would apply to Liam in this case.
But again, this is all intentional. Not one of the actors uses a believable accent. The over-the-top hammy dialogue is juxtaposed with references to Christopher Marlowe as a counterpoint to the lack of eloquence. The film wears its pulpy influence proudly on its sleeve, and never asks to be taken as anything but a cheap, disposable piece of casual entertainment. And because it’s not trying to be anything more than that, it succeeds, because we in the audience know not to hold it to any higher of a standard. Anyone coming in expecting something grand will be let down, but by giving us fair warning about what kind of movie this is, any regrets are 100% on you.
Because of this, more time and energy gets to be spent on the margins, creating a believable atmosphere for all that transpires. The set design and costuming are top notch. Given that Nico works as a prop man on movie sets, the actual props take on an elevated importance, becoming more noticeable to the attentive viewer, and they’re handled quite well. David Holmes creates an appropriate score that melds themes of the day with some fun noir cues, complemented by Jon Batiste contributing a pleasant original song, “The Light Shines Brightest in the Dark.”
If you’re looking for a serious mystery, this is not the film for you. If you’re looking for a knowing parody that enhances the genre, again, stay away from this, as you will be disappointed. Go watch Knives Out and Glass Onion instead. But if you care about the true artistic intent here, and want to watch a bunch of seasoned veterans celebrating a milestone for Liam Neeson with a completely inessential story that still has fun when it tries, then you can safely turn off your brain and enjoy yourself for 100 minutes.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Can you believe that Liam Neeson has made 100 movies? Which is your favorite? Let me know!