Everything old is new again in Hollywood. As the need for content increases, creators are looking to the past for ideas, with remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, and re-imaginings of stories already told being more the rule than the exception. Famous literary characters are prime for resurgence, as we’ve already seen from writer/director Kenneth Branagh, who has brought back Agatha Christie’s legendary detective Hercule Poirot in 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and 2022’s Death on the Nile. Now, veteran director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) is attempting to do the same thing with literary and cinematic icon Philip Marlowe, author Raymond Chandler’s quintessential hard-boiled private detective, the foundation for one of pop culture’s most imbedded character tropes.
Most famously portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in 1946’s The Big Sleep, Marlowe was last seen on the big screen in the remake of that film in 1978, with Robert Mitchum in the titular role. But pop culture’s most famous private eye has been absent from film and television since, pushed out by the younger generation’s desire for younger, cooler private eyes like Magnum, Ace Ventura, Veronica Mars, Benoit Blanc, and The Nice Guys. But it’s always just a matter of time before the classics return, and now, over forty years since he was last seen, Philip Marlowe is back, with Liam Neeson stepping into the famous wingtips, in Marlowe, directed by Jordan and written by Oscar winner William Monahan (The Departed).
Although featuring the character of Philip Marlowe, who Chandler created, Marlowe is based on a novel by John Banville (under the pen name Benjamin Black), The Black-Eyed Blonde, in the Chandler style. Not much of a step above fan fiction, the story puts the titular character in familiar circumstances, back in the ’40s, in Los Angeles (although it’s referred to as “Bay City”) and chasing down a lost lover of a wealthy femme fatale, played by Diane Kruger. The case gets murky and dangerous (doesn’t it always) as Marlowe’s investigation pulls a thread that unravels a complicated conspiracy involving Mexican drug trafficking, high-powered political connections, and murder.
All signs, from the source material to the writer and director to the impressive cast, which includes Oscar-winner Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, point to Marlowe being a slam dunk, but, sadly, it is instead a shockingly lifeless misfire. The plot meanders needlessly towards its predictable conclusion, checking boxes along the way, including shady characters, corrupt politicians, cynical cops, flirtatious femmes, and damsels in distress—not to mention whatever character Cumming is playing, an insulting, confused, and farcical meditation on a racist, closeted studio power player. The bizarrely tone-deaf inclusion of seemingly intentional racism, sexism, and homophobia, presumably intended to reveal how bad it used to be, is cringe-inducing and needless but maybe there to distract from how thin and silly the story really is.
But I’ve watched movies and shows where a weak story is easily saved by performances and a script that allow the audience to invest in the characters, regardless of where the plot takes them. Unfortunately, Marlowe is not The Big Lebowski. The dialogue is so stilted and unnatural it almost feels purposeful. But this is clearly not a satire, and the harder the film commits to the crime mystery genre, the worse it gets. The casual, laughed-off racism is hard to accept, even in terms of time and place, and, speaking of place, the forced Los Angeles cliches are harder to swallow when they are as inauthentic and deliberate as they are here.
The hardest element to understand is how Jordan, who has directed some masterpieces of nuance and texture, such as The End of the Affair and The Crying Game, could elicit such cold and lifeless performances from some of Hollywood’s biggest names. Everyone seems to be phoning it in, especially Neeson, who sleepwalks through this film, injecting not a scintilla of charisma into one of literature’s most iconic characters. He looks like he’s miserable, and it translates to a performance that is flat and lifeless, just like this film.
While it’s nice to see all the reunions, as Lange gets to be on screen again with former costars Neeson, Cumming, and Huston, not to mention Neeson reuniting with his Michael Collins director, Marlowe just can’t be saved by its good intentions.