Even When Memory Fails, Liam Neeson’s Still Got It

Credit: Rico Torres | Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment

By now, veteran actor Liam Neeson is such a stalwart of the action genre, having starred not only in the Taken franchise but also The Grey, Honest Thief, Widows, The Commuter, Non-Stop, Blacklight, and The Marksman, it seems he’s capable of any assignment. Just months away from 70 and having recently completed his 100th film, the action star and AARP cover model can still kick ass as well as any actor half (or even one-quarter!) his age. But how can Hollywood continue to find him age-appropriate work? The answer, at least in the new thriller Memory, is to afflict Neeson’s character with early-onset Alzheimer’s, complicating his takedown of an international drug-smuggling and human trafficking ring.

And while Neeson delivers his typically charismatic competence to the role of a hired assassin who’s been in the game too long, his struggle with Alzheimer’s ultimately matters little more than a minor plot point, a character trait designed only to complicate the chances he’ll succeed in his mission. Neeson plays Alex Lewis, ready to retire from a long career but presented with a final assignment. It’s a well-worn trope borrowed from Westerns from High Noon to Unforgiven. But the task isn’t what Alex is used to—it’s a hit even a hitman can’t tolerate—which leads him into the middle of an FBI sting operation south of the Texas border led by Guy Pearce’s Vincent Serra.

Liam Neeson as Lex Lewis walks away from an exploding car.
Now, where did I put my car keys? Liam Neeson as Alex Lewis. Credit: Rico Torres | Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment.

A faltering memory certainly isn’t what your average aging assassin needs. But even Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) impacts approximately one of every seven people over 60. And its early indicators can be minor ones. Like, for instance, forgetting where you left the car keys. After a hit, in particular, having misplaced the keys to your getaway vehicle can make for a real inconvenience. So to assist himself, Alex relies on a dossier kept in his tablet and Sharpie notes on his forearm. If self-marking and excessive notetaking reminds you of Memento, you’re not alone. But that and Guy Pearce are about the only things that Christopher Nolan’s brilliant treatise on memory loss and this largely forgettable fare have in common.

Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce) on the phone at his desk in Memory.
Guy Pearce as Vincent Serra. Credit: Rico Torres | Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment.

Memory loss generally has long been a go-to trope of studio filmmaking. From Random Harvest and Love Letters to the Bourne franchise and Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind (and Finding Nemo, or for that matter Captain America: The Winter Soldier), amnesia has been played for melodrama, thrills, and laughs. But only rarely do films take memory loss seriously. Going so far as to name itself after Alex’s condition, Memory doesn’t do much to change that. While early scenes credibly depict Alex’s developing memory loss and the complications it presents his assignment, the plot’s dictates take precedence, and long stretches of the narrative overlook his Alzheimer’s entirely. So if Memory doesn’t serve as a film with insight into the consequences of its loss—a condition that plagues more than six million Americans and costs the country over $321 billion in health care—can it at least offer the thrills requisite to its genre? The plot’s machinations begin with a trail of abuse from a child prostitution ring south of the border. We’re not asked to care or learn too about the victims, even young Beatriz (Mia Sanchez): the plot makes its way quickly past the costs of human trafficking to bringing down its nefarious villains. 

Beatriz (Mia Sanchez) sits in a detention center.
Mia Sanchez as Beatriz. Credit: Rico Torres | Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment.

Once Alex learns that Pearce’s Agent Serra is on the case, he offers what assistance he can while still keeping his imperiled freedom and pursuing his own investigation. Pearce is fine. His character is a mess of bad hair and bad clothes, but he’s a good guy, a committed investigator whose insights are crucial to the case. Unfortunately, when Pearce, local cop Marquez (Harold Torres) and Serra’s superior Det. Danny Mota (Ray Stevenson) find themselves in a room, it sounds like a contest to who can win the thickest Texas accent as grown men work to outgrowl each other in a Dirty Harry-meets-Batman-at-the-border machismo contest. Eventually, Alex leads them to wealthy El Paso real estate magnate Davana Sealman (Monica Belluci).

Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci) sits with a glass of wine and game of Solitaire in her garden.
Monica Bellucci as Davana Sealman. Credit: Rico Torres | Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment.

While Memory‘s pace lags whenever Neeson is offscreen, director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro) knows how to stage the action sequences adroitly. And Neeson, as always, can practically charm the lens off the camera. He’s still got a twinkle in his eye and quick fists in a scuffle; that he is prone to memory loss and dependent upon medications makes his character a little more fallible and endearing. Alex is an assassin, but he’s an assassin we can root for, even if all he ultimately wants is to lay his guns down—once the drug-trafficking/child-prostitution ring is cut off at its head.

No one will mistake Memory for, say, Still Alice. Films are subject to genre conventions and Memory‘s obligations to the tropes of the thriller mean there’s little time for exposition or information about the disease its protagonist is beginning to suffer. But Memory is absent any real insight about Alzheimer’s disease, and in 2022 films really can give a bit more thought to their depictions of disability. Questions of representation in film are more pressing with each passing year, and unlike those films of decades past, today’s can do more than present a disability as a mere character trait or narrative device.

While watching Memory, I couldn’t help but think of another aging, charismatic action star pushing 70 and a veteran of over 100 films: Bruce Willis. While Neeson’s films still earn theatrical release, Willis’s have been for the last decade nearly exclusively straight-to-video. Last month, Willis’ family announced his retirement from acting as a consequence of his aphasia, a condition that impedes one’s ability to speak and understand language. It was sobering news to learn about the longtime action star whose films had grossed over five billion dollars over his career.

Aphasia is not, of course, Alzheimer’s, but the two degenerative conditions can have similar impacts for those diagnosed as well as for their families. It’s clear Willis’ condition impacted his work on movie sets in recent years, and in Memory‘s fictional narrative, Alex Lewis’ work is negatively impacted by his struggles with recall. Neeson, meanwhile, is fortunate to be able to continue his work and clearly cognizant of the trauma Willis and his family face. Neeson too, suffered his own tragedy years ago when his wife Natasha Richardson died at age 45 from a brain injury after a skiing accident.

Remade from the 2003 Belgian thriller De Zaak Alzheimer (The Memory of a Killer), itself an adaptation of author Jef Geeraerts’ 1985 book of the same name, Memory fails in several key regards. Its labyrinthine plot cares little about the victims of the criminal activity it investigates. Several characters’ dialogue lapses into a cacophony of expository Texas grunting. More to the point, its treatment of disability offers nearly no insight into its nature or prognosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s here is little more than just another means of characterization. Fortunately, star Liam Neeson’s evergreen charisma and action chops make watching Memory mildly thrilling if, ultimately, unmemorable.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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