Liam Neeson’s Taken era is memorable, but his new revenge film Memory isn’t

In retrospect, it is remarkable how long a shadow Taken threw away. It’s been 14 years since director Pierre Morel redefined Liam Neeson’s place in cinema with his 2008 film, which showed the dramatic actor against type as a former CIA agent and fighting powerhouse. Since then, too many action movies starring Neeson have followed in the footsteps of a familiar dance. Her peaceful domestic life is shattered when something is taken from her: her daughter is kidnapped (Taken), as well as his ex-wife (Taken 2), who is later murdered in Taken 3. Or his son is murdered (cold pursuit), he loses his job (The commuter), or his family moved without him (Unknown). In each case, a long, buried history of clinically effective violence is unearthed, and for about two hours, Neeson makes the criminal element feel sorry for ever thinking it would be easy to go after a guy in the sixties. Memory is the last of those movies, and at first it looks like it might be able to flip the formula. Then he slowly settles into a tired expression.

Memory begins with a slight inversion of Neeson’s acting formula: this time he’s one of the bad guys, sort of. Neeson plays Alex Lewis, a world-class assassin who takes jobs from some of the worst people in the world. When asked to do the one thing you never ask of an action hero – kill a child – Neeson turns against his employers. As he becomes a vigilante determined to make them pay, he is hunted down by both sides, with criminals and law enforcement hounding him along the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. His main pursuer: FBI agent Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce), who is pursuing the same guys as Alex.

MemoryThe big difference is that Alex is in a race against time. His health deteriorates and he suffers from memory loss, warning signs of a serious cognitive decline to come. That means he’s not just looking to punish a crime syndicate for crossing a line; he is symbolically trying to atone for a lifetime of ill-gotten gains while he is still able to take meaningful action.

Photo: Rico Torres/Briarcliff Entertainment

By himself, Memory is a tepid thriller, skillfully directed. Journeyman director Martin Campbell has reliably delivered thrilling action sequences in films ranging from the extraordinary (the 2006 James Bond reboot Casino Royale) to surprising (Jackie Chan’s 2017 Taken riff the stranger) to forget (the Maggie Q vehicle of 2021 The protected). As for the action itself, Memory is decidedly a lesser work by Campbell, who this time around seems more interested in ineffectual melodrama than physical conflict. The promise of any Liam Neeson action movie is that Liam Neeson will commit surprising acts of brutality, but Memory follows Alex as he threatens many people with violence while only occasionally committing it.

Neeson reads as if operating in the same Desperate Skill mode he originally honed Taken. Yet in Memory, the thrill is gone – its intensity is no longer surprising, and as committed as Neeson is to staying on screen and present for most of his character’s stunts, his limitations seem more apparent than usual, given the Campbell’s clear shot blocking and the clean cuts that link the film’s action scenes together so well. No doubt the film suffers from these two men being also good at their jobs, so the commitment of one overexposes the shortcomings of the others.

More compelling is Guy Pearce’s weary agent Serra, who sometimes serves as the de facto protagonist when MemoryThe script of requires Alex to disappear for a period of time. Serra’s investigation of Alex’s criminal employers is the only place Memory makes anything approaching a compelling statement, even if it’s a well-worn statement about the institution of law enforcement and how it’s used to enforce the status quo more than to find justice.

Guy Pearce in an FBI jacket wields a gun and flashlight in the movie Memory.

Photo: Rico Torres/Briarcliff Entertainment

MemoryThe most compelling aspect of ultimately lies outside of the film itself, if read as a meta commentary on Neeson’s action work. As Alex, Neeson portrays a man who knows he can’t continue to be the kind of person Neeson has played in so many movies. The film plays better – but only slightly – if viewers consider comments Neeson made in early 2021 about being ready to retire from this type of film after just a few more (presumably Memory and his next thriller Punishment).

In many of these movies, Neeson has been an unlikely avatar of upper-class white male rage. The appeal of his career-ending turn as an action star is a direct result of the dissonance between his well-mannered demeanor and the violence these characters commit. His sonorous voice — which has led to a long acting career and frequent castings in mentor-like roles — doesn’t belie the brutality these characters all eventually give in to. According to this reading, Neeson’s action films deal with the order that whiteness and wealth have imposed on the world, the masculine sense of entitlement to that order, and the violence that lurks beneath, aimed at anyone who tries to disturb. It all started with a movie called Takenand it’s no coincidence that most of these films are prompted by a man who feels robbed.

Liam Neeson walks through tall grass with an assault rifle in Memory

Photo: Rico Torres/Briarcliff Entertainment

It’s curious, because these movies are never about stealing property – they’re about losing other people and losing status. The lives of the loved ones of its many characters are at stake, but often also the feeling of possession and control that these men feel over their lives. They all have a sense of belonging that extends to their family members, their jobs, and their right to cut out law enforcement and kill people.

Memory isn’t Liam Neeson’s last action movie, and it won’t be the one that defines him. But it’s worth considering as its tenure of mannered cinematic revenge slowly comes to an end. In this case, it’s with a character who suddenly tries to atone for the man he once was, just before his own story evaporates from his mind. It’s not very convincing – even if Alex Lewis admits that he was a villain, Memory is still built around the thrill of seeing this villain unleashed. There’s little to suggest that Alex Lewis is so different from Bryan in the Taken movies, or any of Neeson’s other violent avatars. It is worth remembering this era of cinema, and all that it says about specifically male fantasies and male rage. But it’s not necessarily worth remembering Memory himself.

Memory hits theaters on April 29.


More information about Liam Neeson’s Taken era is memorable, but his new revenge film Memory isn’t

In retrospect, it’s remarkable how long a shadow Taken has cast. It’s been 14 years since director Pierre Morel redefined Liam Neeson’s place in cinema with his 2008 film, which cast the dramatic actor against type as an ex-CIA operative and combat powerhouse. Since then, too many action films starring Neeson have followed the steps of a familiar dance. His peaceful domestic life is shattered when something is taken from him: His daughter is kidnapped (Taken), and so is his ex-wife (Taken 2), who’s then murdered in Taken 3. Or his son is murdered (Cold Pursuit), he loses his job (The Commuter), or his family moves on without him (Unknown). In each case, a long-buried history of clinically effective violence is unearthed, and for about two hours, Neeson makes the criminal element sorry they ever thought picking on a guy in his 60s would be easy. Memory is the latest of these films, and at first, it seems like it’s capable of subverting the formula. Then it slowly settles into tired mimicry.
Memory begins with a slight inversion of the Neeson Action Formula: This time, he’s one of the bad guys, kind of. Neeson plays Alex Lewis, a world-class assassin who takes jobs from some of the worst people in the world. When he’s asked to do the one thing you never ask an action hero to do — kill a kid — Neeson turns on his employers. As he becomes a vigilante determined to make them pay, he’s hunted by both sides, with criminals and law enforcement coming at him along the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. His chief pursuer: FBI agent Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce), who’s after the same guys Alex is.
Memory’s big swerve is that Alex is in a race against time. His health is deteriorating, and he’s suffering from memory loss, a harbinger of severe cognitive decline to come. This means he isn’t just out to punish a crime syndicate for crossing a line; he’s trying to symbolically atone for a life of ill-gotten gains while he’s still capable of taking meaningful action.

Photo: Rico Torres/Briarcliff Entertainment
On its own, Memory is a tepid thriller, competently made. Journeyman director Martin Campbell has reliably delivered exciting action sequences in films running the gamut from extraordinary (the 2006 James Bond reboot Casino Royale) to surprising (Jackie Chan’s 2017 Taken riff The Foreigner) to forgettable (2021’s Maggie Q vehicle The Protégé). In terms of the actual action, Memory is firmly a lesser work from Campbell, who seems more interested this time around in ineffective melodrama than in physical conflict. The promise of any Liam Neeson action movie is Liam Neeson committing startling acts of brutality, but Memory follows Alex around as he threatens a lot of people with violence while only occasionally committing any.
Neeson reads as if he’s operating in the same mode of desperate competence he originally perfected in Taken. Yet in Memory, the thrill is gone — his intensity is no longer surprising, and as committed as Neeson is to remaining onscreen and present for most of his character’s stunts, his limitations appear more apparent than usual, given Campbell’s clear shot blocking and the clean cuts that stitch the film’s action scenes together so neatly. Arguably, the film suffers from these two men being too good at their jobs, so one’s commitment overexposes the others’ shortcomings.
More compelling is Guy Pearce’s weary Agent Serra, who at times serves as the de facto protagonist when Memory’s script demands that Alex disappear for a while. Serra’s investigation into Alex’s criminal employers is the one place where Memory makes anything approaching a compelling statement, even if it’s a shopworn one about the institution of law enforcement and the ways it’s used to enforce the status quo more than to find justice.

Photo: Rico Torres/Briarcliff Entertainment
Memory’s most fascinating aspect ultimately lies outside of the film itself, if it’s read as a meta-commentary on Neeson’s action oeuvre. As Alex, Neeson is portraying a man who knows he can’t continue being the kind of person Neeson has played across so many movies. The film plays better — but only slightly — if viewers consider the comments Neeson made in early 2021 about being ready to retire from this kind of film after only a few more (presumably Memory and his forthcoming thriller Retribution).
In many of these films, Neeson has been an unlikely avatar for white upper-class male rage. The appeal of his late-career turn as an action star is a direct result of the dissonance between his well-mannered demeanor and the violence these characters commit. His sonorous voice — which has led to a long voice-acting career and frequent casting in mentor-type roles — doesn’t belie the brutality these characters all eventually give way to. Under this reading, Neeson’s action movies are about the order whiteness and wealth has imposed on the world, the male sense of entitlement to that order, and the violence lurking beneath it, aimed at anyone who tries to disrupt it. It started with a film called Taken, and it’s no coincidence that most of these films are incited by a man feeling robbed.

Photo: Rico Torres/Briarcliff Entertainment
This is curious, because these films are never about the theft of possessions — they’re about losing other people and losing status. The lives of his many characters’ loved ones are on the line, but often so is the sense of possession and control these men felt over their lives. They all have a sense of ownership extending over their family members, their jobs, and their right to cut out the middleman of law enforcement and kill people.
Memory is not Liam Neeson’s final action film, and it won’t be the one that defines him. But it’s worth considering as his tenure of mannered cinematic vengeance slowly comes to a close. In this case, it’s with a character suddenly attempting to atone for the man he’s been, right before his own history evaporates from his mind. It isn’t terribly convincing — even though Alex Lewis confesses that he’s been a bad guy, Memory is still built around the thrill of seeing that bad guy unleashed. There is little that suggests Alex Lewis is all that different from Bryan in the Taken movies, or any of Neeson’s other violent avatars. It’s worth remembering this era of cinema, and everything it says about specifically male fantasies and male rage. But it isn’t necessarily worth remembering Memory itself.
Memory opens in theaters on April 29.

#Liam #Neesons #era #memorable #revenge #film #Memory #isnt


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