Review: ‘Marlowe,’ with Neeson, resurrects a vintage gumshoe

The richly hard-boiled terrain of detective Philip Marlowe has always been, to quote Raymond Chandler, “a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.”

Chandler’s Los Angeles gumshoe has stretched across some of the most fertile decades of American cinema, from Howard Hawks’ seductively cryptic “The Big Sleep” (1946) to Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (1973).

“Marlowe,” with Liam Neeson as the private eye, is a reclamation project, a bid to recapture some old-school, tough-talking movie magic. And, intriguingly, “Marlowe” is not taken directly from Chandler. It’s instead an original (albeit deeply faithful) interpretation of the character penned by William Monahan (screenwriter of “The Departed”), adapted from John Banville’s 2014 book, “The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel.”

The urge for imitation is an understandably strong one. Who wouldn’t want to write sentences like: “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” And “Marlowe” seemingly has all the requisite trappings. Venetian blinds. Femme fatales. The sinister underbelly of polite society. So why does — to paraphrase Chandler again — “Marlowe” mostly just kill time and die hard?

The film is a handsomely made period piece crafted with obvious affection for film noir by the veteran director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”), plus a top flight cast including Neeson, Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, Danny Huston and Alan Cumming. Yet “Marlowe,” enveloped with a strong smell of mothballs, feels like an old pinstripe suit that’s been taken out of the closet for no apparent reason.

Like countless private eye tales before it, “Marlowe” opens with a mysterious woman — Clare Cavendish, an Irish-American heiress — enlisting a detective (Marlowe, naturally) for a job. She wants him to find her lost lover (François Arnaud), a search that leads Marlowe to an exclusive members’ club that has some very vicious things going on behind closed doors. It’s overseen by the wide-smiling Floyd Hanson (a brightly brutish Huston), whose toothy grin barely disguises his underlying menace. Like Marlowe, he’s a veteran of the war, and if anything sticks in this stale tale, it’s the way he shrugs off past horrors while carrying them into daily life. “We’re alive and others are not, and it’s a pleasant morning,” he neatly summarizes to Marlowe.

As much as Neeson might seem to have the special set of skills required to play Marlowe, his detective feels hollow and maybe a little too tired.

“Marlowe,” a Briarcliff Entertainment release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for language, violent content, some sexual material and brief drug use. Running time: 110 minutes. Two stars out of four.