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Review | Noirish ‘Memory’ is a cut above the average Liam Neeson action flick

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(2.5 stars)

There’s a sameness to many of the roles Liam Neeson takes these days. With a few notable recent exceptions that still prove his depth and range — “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Ordinary Love” — the Oscar-nominated star of “Schindler’s List” has lately become more associated with action thrillers in which he plays a certain type: an emotionally damaged, perhaps even demon-driven antihero/loner plagued by alcoholism, an ethically compromised past, grief or some other psychic pain whose quest for redemption has turned him into an avenging angel. The quality of these films fluctuates between satisfying and disappointing, for the same reason. Because Neeson is so adept at rendering this stock character, he doesn’t always work very hard at it. Sometimes that effortlessness is a pleasure, and sometimes it just feels lazy.

Liam Neeson, a beloved action star who can pack an emotional punch

In plot, at least, “Memory” is no exception. Based on the 1985 novel “De Zaak Alzheimer” by Belgian writer Jef Geeraerts and its 2003 Belgian film adaptation, “The Memory of a Killer,” Neeson’s latest genre exercise centers on a hit man with dementia who suddenly sprouts a conscience when one of the targets he’s been hired to kill turns out to be a 13-year-old girl. And yet “Memory” is a cut above average, for this sort of thing. Mostly that’s thanks to the direction of Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale”), who injects the same freshness of energy into this formulaic outing that he did with last year’s assassin thriller “The Protege.”

“Memory” feels more like film noir — deliciously dark, cynical and slightly amoral — than a pulpy piece of rote storytelling.

Neeson, for one thing, isn’t really the good guy here, or really even the bad guy with a heart of gold. His Alex Lewis is a coldblooded killer. With one exception — the barely teenage prostitute (Mia Sanchez) Alex refuses to kill after he’s hired to kill a couple of people to cover up a child-exploitation ring — he has few qualms about whom he murders. Cops, in particular, are so much collateral damage in Alex’s single-minded mission to take out the members of the international sex-trafficking cartel. The fact that he’s starting to lose his memory, and must write reminders down on his forearm with a Sharpie, barely makes him more sympathetic.

It’s a weird feeling, not being able to root wholeheartedly for Neeson. But I kind of like it. It feels honest, and less pandering.

Some cops, however, are spared. Two members of the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force (Guy Pearce and Taj Atwal), along with a Mexican detective (Harold Torres) on loan to the FBI, are allowed to live so they can perform cleanup on the messy pile of corpses Alex leaves behind in his path of vengeance. Mostly, as Pearce’s Agent Vincent Serra observes, that entails “taking out” the traffickers whom Vincent and the task force aren’t legally able to execute, while leaving the feds a trail of “breadcrumbs.”

Vincent’s pursuit of Alex, while following those breadcrumbs, is the engine that drives the plot. (The casting of Pearce, who in 2001’s “Memento” played an amnesiac pursuing his wife’s killer while marking his own body with clues, is a nice sort of callback.)

“Memory” is by no means a deep film. But there’s something here that lends the familiar proceedings a bittersweet aftertaste that lingers in the mind. That’s the film’s mix of moral ambiguity and the regret of someone for whom it’s too late to undo the past, but not perhaps to rectify the present, even when the law can’t. In the words of Vincent: “Memory’s a mother-f—er. And as for justice, it ain’t guaranteed.”

R. At area theaters. Contains violence, some bloody images, brief nudity, mature thematic elements and coarse language throughout. 114 minutes.

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