The history of Hollywood is studded with failed attempts to adapt European films. Take Édouard Molinaro’s charming 1978 French-Italian comedy La Cage aux Folles, about a gay male couple who masquerade as a straight couple to win the approval of the parents of their son’s fiancée. Mike Nichols, a brilliant director (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; The Graduate; Primary Colors), remade it in 1996 with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane in the lead roles. It was a big hit, but it was horrible. In an attempt to turn a small charming film into a big Hollywood star vehicle, Nichols steamrollered the delicate details that created, in Molinaro’s hands, a deeply human balance between poignancy and farce. “Material that was touching, true and funny in the original,” I wrote in the New York Times, “becomes in Mr. Nichols’s hands witless, false and on occasion even horrific.” The material’s “tragic subtext,” palpable in the original, was nowhere to be found in the remake.
Sometimes even a director who’s remaking his own film can screw up. One of the most powerful movies I know is The Vanishing (Spoorloos, 1988) by Dutch director George Sluizer. The story is simple: a young Dutch couple who are driving through France stop for gas at a rest area; Saskia goes into the convenience store and never comes out, and Rex spends the next few years desperately trying to find out what happened to her. It’s a masterpiece — the very model of a chilling, nightmare-inducing thriller. Sluizer remade it five years later in English — starring Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, and Sandra Bullock — and it fell flat. As the critic for Time Out London put it, “Sluizer has held down his waywardly inspired child while studio and scriptwriter Todd Graff have lobotomised it with a sharp, cruel scalpel.” In the Washington Post, Hal Hinson called it “a case study in how Hollywood can make a complete mess out of what was previously a marvelous film.” Not only did the heroine vanish; so did the psychological subtleties. Graff (author of Fran Drescher’s ghastly 1997 comedy The Beautician and the Beast) even gave it a happy ending.
Which brings us to the new movie Memory, now out on Netflix. In 2003, the Belgian director Erik van Looy released a thriller, titled Die Zaak Alzheimer in the original Flemish and marketed in English under two different titles, The Memory of a Killer and The Alzheimer Case. Based on a novel by Jef Geeraerts, it’s about Angelo Ledda, a French Mafia hit man who’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and whose principled refusal to neutralize Bieke, a 12-year-old Antwerp girl who’s been pimped out by a sex-crime ring, leads him to turn against his gangster colleagues and the sex traffickers and to take out the whole filthy lot of them. It’s a good, solid movie — a typically dark European thriller, with a gritty ambience, rich thematic nuances, and complex shadings of character.
This is the movie that has now been remade as Memory by thriller veteran Martin Campbell (Mask of Zorro, Golden Eye, Casino Royale) from a script by TV writer Dario Scardapane. It stars none other than Liam Neeson in the role of the hit man with Alzheimer’s. You may or may not recall that a few weeks ago, writing for The American Spectator about a couple of harrowing Polish movies that address child sex trafficking, I mentioned in passing the 2008 movie Taken, in which Neeson plays Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent who has just a few hours to track down his daughter, who’s been kidnapped in Paris by an Albanian sex-trafficking gang. Taken, of course, was a great roller-coaster ride of a movie. Now here’s yet another sex-trafficking story, also starring Neeson. (For what it’s worth, both Neeson and Memory co-star Guy Pearce have played lead characters with memory issues in previous films — Neeson in the absorbing 2011 thriller Unknown and Pearce in the disturbing 2000 film Memento.)
In adapting van Looy’s script, Scardapane has made some major changes. To begin with, instead of Belgium, Memory is set in several cities near the U.S.-Mexico border. So, instead of 12-year-old Bieke, we get 12-year-old Beatriz (Mia Sanchez), a Mexican girl whose dad, Leon (Antonio Jaramillo), has been prostituting her out of their flat in El Paso and telling her that her sex work is the price of living in freedom in America. When Leon is killed in an FBI raid, Vincent Serra (Pearce), the G-man responsible for his death, visits Beatrix in a holding cell and tries to buck her up by explaining that under certain circumstances, girls in situations like hers can be awarded “special visas” to stay in the USA. No, this apparently wasn’t meant as a laugh line: apparently this is one script that was written at a time when crossing the southern border and disappearing forever into the American heartland involved at least some degree of difficulty.
Anyway, we’re meant to understand that Serra, who belongs to the FBI’s child-exploitation task force, is a genuinely good guy; that not everybody in the FBI is; and, alas, that being a good guy just isn’t enough to bring down the child traffickers: the FBI and U.S. justice system simply work too slowly, and the bad guys are simply too rich and well-connected. So when Serra is contacted by Alex Lewis (Neeson), the hit man who refused to kill Beatrix — and who, in his determination to bring down the child traffickers, is unencumbered by a concern for the niceties of the law — they initiate an improbable collaboration. As Serra tells a colleague: “He’s taking out the traffickers we can’t.” (Shades, by the way, of another great action thriller, Death Wish.)
To a remarkable extent, Memory tracks van Looy’s original, often line by line. And yet it’s been made by people who, in an attempt to make it look and feel more like, well, Taken — to transform it, in other words, into a Hollywood star vehicle — have done serious harm. Yes, here, as in Taken, we get to see Neeson do a lot of righteous killing — much of it grisly and gruesome — on his way to achieving ultimate justice. As in Taken, there’s even a scene set on a yacht. Yet Memory, alas, is no Taken. Taken is a terrific ride because it’s straightforward, streamlined, and no-nonsense: you know from the get-go who the hero is, and you cheer for him throughout, and you never experience a moment’s confusion as to what’s going on. Memory, while trying both to be faithful to its source material and to appeal to audiences expecting another Taken, falls between two stools, and as a result isn’t a satisfactory example of either a somber European-style film about an anti-hero mired in a world where everything and everyone is more or less corrupt or a slick, shiny, relentlessly fast-moving Hollywood picture in which there are good guys and bad guys and never the twain shall meet.
Still, a film professor could do worse than to use van Looy’s original and Campbell’s adaptation as case studies in a course on European vs. American — specifically Hollywood — cinema. Van Looy’s original, with its moody, noirish feel, gritty, realistic texture, and natural rhythms, is awash in moral ambiguity — and all of this is precisely what makes it work. No, it’s not a great film, but it succeeds on its own terms. Campbell’s picture — bigger, brighter, more expensive-looking — gestures half-heartedly in the direction of raw realism and moral ambiguity, but Campbell’s Hollywood instincts aren’t in it, so it just doesn’t work.
Take the scene in which Lewis, speaking to Serra on the phone, tells him: “I want to believe you’re a good man, Vincent. I’m the bad man, have been for a long time.” Liam Neeson a bad man? We don’t really believe it. Because Campbell doesn’t — not really. In the original, Van Looy doesn’t flinch from painting Ledda as an exceedingly unsympathetic character indeed — one whose sole touch of virtue is his refusal to murder a child in cold blood. Campbell, by contrast, is highly aware that he’s operating within a Hollywood context, and is therefore loath to make Lewis as unpleasant a character as he has to be in order for Memory to make sense.
Then there’s the Alzheimer’s angle. In van Looy’s film, the hit man’s indisposition is not just credible but palpable. He’s a mess, struggling constantly against his debility and getting things done, with great difficulty, only because he isn’t yet totally ravaged by it. But in Memory, we keep seeing Neeson carrying off remarkable acts of derring-do of the sort that he did in Taken — talk about a unique set of skills! — and every now and then taking a moment to scribble a phone number or whatever on his arm because his memory is supposedly shot. Campbell just can’t commit totally to the idea of having this action-movie superstar stumbling around with Alzheimer’s. So it just doesn’t work at all.
Then there’s this. Memory is set largely in El Paso, a city that Tucker Carlson has recently discussed at length on his Fox News show. Once a nice, safe, attractive American city, during the last few years it’s been transformed beyond recognition by armies of illegal immigrants who’ve crossed the border and plopped themselves down all over town, turning it into a mirror image of Ciudad Juárez, the hellhole directly across the border. But in Memory, however, El Paso is still presented as the perfectly fine city of yore, in which the depravities of the child traffickers stick out like a sore thumb. In the real El Paso of today, these traffickers’ activities would simply be one small part of an apocalyptic urban mosaic.
I can’t blame Campbell too much for the way in which he adapted Van Looy’s movie. As I’ve said, this is an old story. Nor is my point here to criticize Hollywood. On balance, Hollywood has given us more great movies than any country on earth. It’s just that a Hollywood film is a certain kind of thing, with its own distinctive strengths. The notion that you can easily turn a classically European film that works like a charm into a Hollywood movie without losing whatever made the original successful is akin to thinking that you can surgically turn a girl into a boy. Still, it’s not impossible. All it takes is a thoroughgoing imaginative transformation by a writer and director with the intelligence and sensitivity to realize what the job requires.
Consider the case of René Clément’s superb 1960 crime thriller Plein soleil (Purple Noon), based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. In 1999, writer-director Anthony Minghella made a star-studded American version (Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman) with the same title as the original, and it’s nothing less than a masterwork — one of my favorite films ever. Part of the reason why it succeeds is that it isn’t really a remake of Clément’s film but a new — and, in fact, more faithful — adaptation of Highsmith’s novel; perhaps, moreover, his 1996 Oscar wins (Best Picture and Best Director) for The English Patient made it more possible for Minghella, a writer-director of singular savvy, subtlety, and skill, to stay true to his vision without interference by producers and studio bosses.
All of which, I suppose, is by way of saying that if you already have Netflix and feel inclined to check out Memory, go for it. But if you find it wanting, you might want to seek out Die Zaak Alzheimers. Have fun!