‘Memory’ Sends Liam Neeson to Texas to Shoot His Way Through Familiar Territory

It’s getting to the point where you can watch a “new” Liam Neeson action movie and automatically turn it into a drinking game. Take a shot every time Neeson tosses away a cell phone or mentions his past. “Memory” has the most ironic title in the Neeson canon because it feels like a recollection of every cliché the great actor has solidified in his career as a gun-wielding tough guy. The only thing that changes is the setting. This time he breezes through a plot involving drug lords and child traffickers on the U.S.-Mexico border, naturally seeking lots of revenge. Action is the genre where schlock is the name of the game, but even that requires a particular skill. “Memory” has a roster full of very skilled players all trapped within a bizarre exercise bordering on parody.

El Paso, Texas is the place where it all begins when a local detective named Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce) kills a Mexican trafficker who was pimping out his own daughter, Beatriz (Mia Sanchez). Vincent and his fellow detectives believe they are uncovering a sexual predator ring linking neighboring Ciudad Juarez with powerful figures in Texas, such as the debauched son of Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci), a real estate developer. These suspicions are confirmed when shady cartel types like Mauricio (Lee Boardman) send a seasoned hitman, Alex Lewis (Neeson), to retrieve a compromising flash drive and whack evidence, such as Beatriz. The gig arrives just as Alex is in the mood to retire. Not only is he tired of killing people for money, he’s also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When he realizes he has been sent to kill a 12-year-old girl, Alex backs away and goes rogue. 

“Memory” is directed by Martin Campbell, who has made some of the greatest action films of all time like “Casino Royale” and one of the oddest superhero flops ever, “Green Lantern.” His work swings between innovative and slapped together vehicles like this. Every Neeson and assassin over 50 touch he has defined since “Taken” makes an appearance. The villains are one-dimensional cartel Mexicans and cold-hearted American business types who sip wine with dead stares. Everything feels nearly obligatory. Mauricio sits with Alex in a lavish estate recycling the same old speech where the criminal boss can’t believe his guy wants to retire. Neeson gets his required badass introduction where he chokes a cartel hitman to death with a wire inside a hospital room. He’s one of those assassins who doesn’t necessarily mind getting paid for murder, except when it comes to a kid, a tradition going back to when Nicolas Cage hesitates before killing John Travolta’s son in “Face/Off.” 

Shot in a simple, low-budget style that still carries some of Campbell’s visual craft, there’s not much else to the movie. Guy Pierce runs around arguing with his superiors, stopping to have introspective conversations at a local bar with colleagues like Linda (Taj Atwal). All superiors like FBI agent Danny Mora (Ray Stevenson) or chief Gerald Nussbaum (Ray Fearon) are too scared to take on Davana Sealman or be bought off. The screenplay by Dario Scardapane, based on a novel by Jef Geeraerts, basically imagines how the Jeffrey Epstein case would have turned out if a macho hitman had been sent to resolve the problem. It is a welcome change to have the action set in a southwestern city, because it has the potential to give the plot more of a modern western feel. Instead of truly utilizing that, however, Campbell settles for giving us the usual. Neeson attempts to give a bit more spirit to another required scene where Alex takes a bullet to the side and does his own medical treatment, consisting of the usual ingredients such as liquor for the wound with a lighter for cauterizing. The whole Alzheimer’s angle gets lost in the cliché shuffle. During shootouts and standoffs Alex forgets a word or stutters. Apparently, it’s the only way to remind viewers his medical condition is an element of the story.

While “Memory” can’t necessarily be called a “good” action movie, by now there’s an eye-rolling sense of fun at simply watching Neeson knock out another title in a particular kind of genre he has helped pioneer. He will forever be commended for popularizing the return of seasoned veterans as action stars, proving age is not an obstacle to blowing up things very well, or breaking a bad guy’s neck. It’s easy to suspect Neeson does these films as a form of vacation, considering he still acts in excellent dramas like “Ordinary Love.” Our collective love for the great Irishman aside, “Memory” as a thriller is another throwaway that will prove forgettable after the last shot is fired. 

Memory” releases April 29 in theaters nationwide.