When John Banville wrote his Raymond Chandler tribute novel “Black-Eyed Blonde,” one critic said he not only nailed the style and milieu of Chandler’s 1940s detective Philip Marlowe; he had also captured Marlowe’s soul.
As for the new movie based on that book: I don’t think those folks could find Marlowe’s soul if it drove up to their smoky L.A. office in a vintage Oldsmobile — with a quart of bourbon and a sultry femme fatale sitting in the front seat.
A long-time Chandler fan, I was initially excited by “Marlowe’s” impeccable pedigree: Director Neil Jordan (“Mona Lisa,” “The Brave One” and the flawed but critically acclaimed “Crying Game”); writer William Monahan, who won an Oscar for “The Departed”; and Liam Neeson, who is here appearing in his 100th movie. On top of all that, “Marlowe’s” supporting cast includes Jessica Lange, Diane Kruger, Colm Meaney, Alan Cumming and Danny Huston — son of the late John Huston, who directed one classic ’40s detective story (“The Maltese Falcon”) and starred in another (“Chinatown”).
Neeson is the 18th actor to play Philip Marlowe onscreen, and the veteran’s trademark blend of toughness and integrity are well-suited to Chandler’s world-weary P.I. But none of the other elements in “Marlowe” coalesce into anything interesting or sensible.
Monahan jettisons most of Banville’s straightforward plot; instead, he brews up a convoluted mess that feels both too derivative and too modern. Set in 1939, the story borrows from many other noir thrillers but is at the same time rife with F-bombs, coke-snorting and far more bloody violence than ever appears in Chandler’s beloved books.
Indeed, perhaps because the filmmakers snagged a lead who’s known for shooting first and asking questions later, Monahan has Marlowe wreaking havoc left and right — whereas in the books he is generally getting beaten up and knocked out, all while not quite knowing what is going on.
For me, the low point involved a mid-movie scene on a Hollywood backlot. One movie-actress character is filming a shootout, and her face has been plastered with gross-out make-up giving her a bloody hole in the eye — while the onscreen director insists she look straight into the camera so his audience will get a good view.
I’m sorry, but such R-rated content would never have been allowed in 1939; the strict Hays “Production Code” had been in effect for only a few years, and studios were extremely limited in what they could show onscreen. For me, this was an unforgiveable lapse — by a bunch of folks who should certainly know better.
Yet, despite all this, the worst thing about “Marlowe” is how stilted and artificial it feels. Except for Neeson, everyone just seems to be going through the motions. At times, one wonders if they were aiming at parody.
There’s no real life to the dialog, the characters, or the plot — and as a result, the movie never holds our interest. In fact, it actually becomes more and more tedious as it goes along — so much so that a friend who went with me actually fell asleep.
Frankly, I kind of wish I had done the same.