Brooding, perpetually down-on-his-luck private detective Phillip Marlowe (Liam Neeson) is hired by a beautiful and wealthy heiress (Diane Kruger) to investigate the disappearance of her lover (Francois Arnaud). When Marlowe quickly discovers that he died outside an exclusive club with a host of unsavoury members (Danny Huston, Alan Cumming), Marlowe must navigate the elite of Bay City and the darkness underneath it...
Marlowe as a character is one that frequently sees new interpretations, often with different shades and colours brought forth. The character is just distinct enough to have a few key elements at play, but vague enough that each new iteration can play it entirely differently. Elliot Gould played him like a smart-ass in 'The Long Goodbye', Bogart was able to mix humour with anguish and rage in 'The Big Sleep', while Robert Mitchum's version in 'Farewell, My Lovely' had the casual cool and easy violence down to a tee.
Liam Neeson, on paper, feels like a good fit for Marlowe. He's got years of action movies behind him, he looks physically imposing when needed and shot that way, and he carries a kind of ready-made, bristling anger about him that can snap at any minute. The odd thing is that lately this only ever seems to work in comedy settings, such as his scene-stealing cameo in 'Ted 2'. It's also why he's arguably the best possible successor to Leslie Nielsen in 'The Naked Gun', which was itself a piss-take of detective stories like the ones Marlowe featured in.
Based on John Banville's 'The Black-Eyed Blonde', there's a typically labyrinthine noir plot at work that involves an exclusive members' club, backstabbing heiresses, shady dealings in darkened rooms, a few scuffles and murders, and an overarching contempt for the social elite and the havoc they wreak on those perceived to be beneath them. Yet, in 'Marlowe', there's an odd kind of self-awareness that makes itself far too distracting with nods and winks and sometimes outright references to other movies. Hell, you've even got a Huston playing a shady businessman, walking around a leafy mansion and leading a private detective by the nose while he does it.
It's a frustrating movie to watch, not the least of it being the script is never nearly as smart or as cunning as you'd hope it to be. Noir and detective stories are slaves to tropes, yes, but in 'Marlowe', there's a sense that it's almost contemptuous of them. What's more, the dialogue throughout has this wooden delivery that's trying to mimic old Hollywood, but really just comes off like everyone's reading the script cold off-screen. Jessica Lange has a confusing role in the movie, playing a faded Irish-American film star with a horrifically sounded-out accent that just ends up distracting you more than anything else. Colm Meaney turns up as Marlowe's old buddy, Alan Cumming chews every bit of scenery he can find as a heroin-dealing kingpin, while Diane Kruger does her best Lauren Bacall impression for most of the movie.
'Marlowe' borrows heavily from its own history, taking liberal inspiration from better movies to fill out its runtime and give everyone a reason to be on screen. The problem is that these constant references, the way in which they're deployed and arranged in the story and on screen, reminds you that 'Marlowe' doesn't have anything going for itself. It can only graft and cobble together some setpieces and a vaguely familiar story to make something that is, ultimately, underwhelming when considered against the talent on-screen and behind the camera.