Philip Marlowe is back on the big screen for the first time since the 1970s, this time in the concisely titled “Marlowe,” directed by Neil Jordan. Liam Neeson, now 70, is the oldest actor to bring the famed private investigator to life on screen, surpassing Robert Mitchum, who starred in the two most recent Marlowe films. Neeson, however, brings his own aged stoic action hero flavor to the classic character. The film’s story follows tried-and-true noir conventions, while the use of color and the foregrounding of graphic violence makes it stand apart from its classic antecedents.
Jordan’s “Marlowe” begins with a groggy Philip Marlowe getting out of bed, into his night robe, and preparing for the day in his quiet hillside bungalow. This scene recalls the opening of Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” the landmark neo-noir film starring Elliott Gould as a reinvented 1970s Philip Marlowe. However, Gould’s young Marlowe wakes up in yesterday’s clothes, unshaven and dirty. Neeson is introduced as a more composed version of this famous protagonist. From the start, “Marlowe” is at once a homage to its forerunners as well as a new, more matured take on a classic genre.
Neeson’s Marlowe also lacks the cynical wisecracking charisma of an Elliott Gould or Bogart, notable Marlowes of yesteryear. Nevertheless, Neeson’s reserve makes his infrequent outbursts that much more exciting in the scenes where the film allows for his action star persona to come out. While wielding a gun or picking up and tossing an evil henchman, Neeson’s quiet power shines through. While those who seek the witty, biting one-liners of a classic noir gumshoe may be disappointed by Neeson’s portrayal, his slow-moving, imposing six-foot-4-inch presence has its own effect.
Visually, the break from classic noir is clear from the start. The establishing cityscape shots are not shadowy, grimy, and grayscale but rather rendered in colorful CGI with a digital gleam. A cinematographic cleanliness pervades much of the film, in striking contrast to the visual grittiness of classic noir and neo-noir. Even a film like “Blade Runner,” which was an important reference for Jordan, surpasses “Marlowe” in capturing the seedy underbelly of dystopian Los Angeles by using dramatic lighting, cluttered sets, and emphatic colors to much greater effect. In this last respect, however, “Marlowe” does succeed in climactic sequences, where the use of color punctuates Neeson and his new-found sidekick’s descent into the bowels of the city.
The film, however, makes up for its lack of visual grittiness through repeated uses, if not abuses, of graphic violence, brought to life in bright color. “Marlowe” chooses to foreground the violence in many instances where older films might have toned it down. Violence is indisputably a staple of the genre; however, there is no subtlety in the bullet-riddling of characters, the graphic brutalized corpses, and, most strikingly, a car running over somebody’s head. For better or worse, graphic violence is a vivid spectacle in this film more so than in most of its noir counterparts, save for, perhaps, the inspirational “Blade Runner.”
The script, by William Monahan (“The Departed”) sticks to form. Quippy dialogue, chock full of curses, slurs, and innuendos, propels the movie. New characters and plot developments are introduced at every turn; murders, betrayals, and even a mid-movie columbarium chase scene keep the movie engaging. With all these twists and turns, the film quickly establishes a convoluted, web-like plot to rival any classic noir. While the confusing storyline is a nice homage to the noir of old, it can have the negative effect of diminishing the climactic payoff.
As long as you do not get lost between the fast-paced dialogue and the slow-paced movement of the now-elderly, though still powerful, lead actor, “Marlowe” will pay dividends as a modern reworking of a classic genre, albeit with less authentic grittiness and perhaps an over-reliance on compensatory graphic violence.