Movie review: 'Memory of a Killer'

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3½ stars (out of four)

Jan Decleir—a Belgian actor who has the rugged, bitterly savvy demeanor of great gangster movie stars like Humphrey Bogart or Lee Marvin—plays a hit man afflicted with Alzheimer's disease in the new Belgian thriller "The Memory of a Killer." It's very close to a great performance.

With his aging-swinger looks (a little like crooner Tony Bennett's), natty clothes and a grim, unvarying expression that reads like a death sentence, Decleir, 59, is a fantastic crime thriller protagonist. He helps make "Memory," adapted by director Erik Van Looy from the novel by Jef Geeraerts, into a sometimes stunning modern Euro-noir.

As Angelo Ledda, a high-priced hired assassin and Alzheimer's victim who turns the tables on his employers, the actor conveys both annihilating anguish and cold-blooded brutality with unnerving force. Oscillating between those extremes—snapping a victim's neck and gobbling down his medication as his memory splinters into bits—Ledda becomes eerily, scarily moving.

The movie itself is as slick, fast and terrifyingly violent as a top-grade American crime thriller, but a lot smarter than most. It's built around Ledda's dilemma, initially caused by the investigation of a child-prostitution ring in Antwerp by two young cop protagonists: sharp sleuth Eric Vincke (Koen De Bouw) and his hard-guy partner, Freddy Verstuyft (Werner De Smedt).

Despite the illness he's been hiding, Ledda—a Belgian-born hired killer from Marseilles— takes on one last job in Antwerp, a double contract pressed on him by his longtime employer Seynaeve (Gene Bervoets). The first hit, on a local politician connected to the ring (Lucas Van den Eynde), comes off quickly. But when Ledda discovers that his second slated victim is a 12-year-old girl—a child hooker named Brigitte testifying for the police—he balks, because, among other reasons, he was a victim of child abuse himself.

This refusal makes Ledda a target for his own boss and for the well-connected clique of politicians and businessmen involved in the prostitution ring. So Ledda goes after them. As he tracks them down, going higher and higher up into the "protected" realms of Belgian government and aristocracy, the killer is tracked himself by Vincke and Verstuyft.

There's an intense, wayward pleasure in watching this movie's upper-class, supposedly well-guarded brothel masters, crooks and killers get theirs at the hands of a true pro. But "Memory," like the amnesia noir "Memento," is also laced with another constant anxiety: the degeneration of his Alzheimer's hovering like a specter over Ledda's bloody war.

The story, directed with surpassing slickness, skill and high energy by Van Looy, is told from three angles: the cops', the crooks' and Ledda's. The crooks are properly smug, sadistic and loathsome, and the cops are a likable, handsome twosome who suggest American movie prototypes. The smoother, more liberal Vincke, who looks like Ethan Hawke, lives in a condo that resembles a Van Gogh print gallery, and the rougher-hewn, angrier and more right-wing Verstuyft, a Chris Penn type, gobbles sweets, drives fast and shoots awesomely straight.

But it's Ledda and his trapped, bloody trajectory that give "Memory" both tension and near-tragedy. Van Looy directs it in a very flashy style and it's full of good performances, crisply staged action, tilted-angle frames and wire-taut editing. He lets his imaginative cinematographer, Danny Elsen, drench the screen in darkness and cold light and he uses jump-cuts reminiscent of Godard's "Breathless" both to give the movie a driving, reckless energy and, at times, to suggest Gedda's disease, the way his memory is fragmenting and falling apart.

Like most noirs, this is not a movie that easily caters to female audiences. Van Looy downplays the character of Vincke's wife (an important figure in the novel) and turns the criminals' wives into heartless witches or tramps. The only sympathetic women here are hookers and policewomen. The movie's climax is also partly a bit too extreme, the one time when the tight-knit story seems to leap the rails into formula. But "Memory of a Killer" like all top noirs, has style, a riveting narrative pace and a chillingly dark world-view that keep you hooked right from the opening shots. Once you see Ledda's eyes, intent on the kill or blank with sudden panic, they'll haunt your memory too.

mwilmington@tribune.com

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'The Memory of a Killer'

Directed by Erik Van Looy; written by Carl Joos, Van Looy, based on the novel "The Alzheimer Affair" by Jef Geeraerts; photographed by Danny Elsen; edited by Philippe Ravoet; art direction by Johan Van Essche; music by Stephen Warbeck; produced by Erwin Provoost, Hilde De Laere. In Flemish and French, with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:03. MPAA rating: R (for violence, language, sexuality and nudity).

Angelo Ledda - Jan Decleir

Eric Vincke - Koen De Bouw

Freddy Verstuyft - Werner De Smedt

Seynaeve - Gene Bervoets

Baron Gustave de Haeck - Jo De Meyere

Jean de Haeck - Tom Van Dyck

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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