Technically it’s the correct word, although hearing it in Marlowe sounded so…wrong that I had to pause the film and look it up. According to dictionary.com, assignation means “an appointment to meet someone in secret, typically one made by lovers.”
But come on, who talks like that in real life or in the movies? Nobody, and that’s why it sounds so idiotic when his new client, Claire Cavendish (Diane Kruger), tells Marlowe (Liam Neeson) that she wasn’t just meeting her lover the day he disappeared; they had an ‘assignation.’ If I’d been drinking anything when she said it, I would have blown it out my nose and all over the screen.
Sadly, William Monahan’s bumbling screenplay is the least offensive thing about this new film from the director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game). It’s a film noir, French for “dark film,” shot in a garishly bright color scheme that makes even the outdoor scenes feel like they were shot on an overlit sound stage. It’s an American period film – 1930’s LA/Hollywood – filled with Irish, Scottish, German, French Canadian, and a few American actors who can’t decide what accent to use. Worst of all, it cast the monosyllabic Irishman Liam Neeson to play the legendary tough-talking detective Phillip Marlowe. For the past 15 years or so, Neeson has been cranking out a series of increasingly mediocre action movies – The Gray, The Commuter, The Ice Road, and three movies about bad guys kidnapping various members of his family, Taken 1,2, and 3. None of them is memorable, although some unintentionally hilarious scenes in The Ice Road may haunt you for years.
While there has been a wide range of actors who have tried to bring Raymond Chandler’s iconic private dick to life on the silver screen, from Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep to Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective, none of them seem so lost about how to do it as Neeson. His accent and his rather ponderous way of speaking keep any of Marlowe’s lines from having the snap they need to cut listeners to the quick. As if he knows he doesn’t sound right for the part, Neeson falls back on a lot of annoying mannerisms, like how he smokes or wears his hat to show you who he is; it’s not enough.
Neeson’s ineptitude infects the rest of the cast; almost none muster up the energy to do anything memorable in Marlowe. There’s even an awkward exchange between Neeson and Danny Huston, playing a sleazy club owner, where you can almost see the very talented Huston deflating as he gives up on making the scene work. Unlike the rest of the cast, though, at least he tried. That’s more than Kruger or Jessica Lange do.
The one notable exception to the gloom that strangles the story is the appearance of Alan Cumming as the mobster Lou Hendricks. The Scottish-born Cumming’s American mobster accent is as bad as anybody else’s in the movie. Still, he embraces it so wholly and says his lines emphatically that it slices through the pall of the piece like a hot knife through butter. It’s the only pulse in a film that arrives DOA.