If The Memory of a Killer were not mostly in Flemish, it would be easy to mistake for a Hollywood movie. The story of a hit man with a conscience and the cop who's always a step or two behind him as they pursue the same villains, it's full of familiar reference points, including the John Woo cliché of pigeons flying in slow motion. No surprise, then, that Focus Features is set to remake it. If Focus is smart, it'll get Clint Eastwood interested, and the result might be better than the original.
Not that the original is bad; it just feels a little odd to be watching it in an art-house theater when, language barrier aside, it's about as mainstream as movies get. If you're one of those people who complained that Memento could just as well have been told in chronological order, it may well be your cup of tea. Hit man Angelo Ledda (Jan Decleir, of 1995's Oscar-winning Antonia) is suffering from the early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and frequently writes details that he has to remember on his arms.
We don't meet Angelo at first, though. The opening sequence depicts undercover cop Eric Vincke (Koen De Bouw) busting an odious gentleman who prostitutes his own 12-year-old-daughter. Things don't go quite as planned, but the girl makes it out alive.
The Memory of a Killer
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Then we skip five days ahead to see Angelo hired for one last job (isn't it always?), with details unspecified, except that there are two targets. He handily takes down the first, despite occasional spells when the Alzheimer's briefly overtakes him, then learns that the second one is the young girl. He may kill people for his paycheck, but dammit, the man has scruples! So he turns down the job and becomes a target himself. The girl eventually turns up dead anyway, and Vincke, along with partner Freddy Verstuyft (Werner De Smedt), is on the case. The only question is whether they can solve the crime and bust the criminals before Angelo takes out all the guilty parties by himself. After all, he doesn't have long to live anyway, so there's nothing to lose.
It has to be pretty embarrassing for these two cops that they consistently get owned by an old man who's losing his mind, but they remain pretty stoic throughout, except when dealing with another division of law enforcement that doesn't much care for them. The Gendarmerie, roughly the equivalent of SWAT, are generally pretty derisive toward the more investigation-oriented judiciary branch of the police, to which Vincke and Verstuyft belong. And since the villains are well-connected, they tend to be good at getting the Gendarmerie on their side, which complicates matters substantially. Still, as Ronald Reagan's second presidential term proved, you should never underestimate a determined old man with Alzheimer's.
When Angelo has his "attacks," they're symbolized by a series of quick cuts through green filters, which is the closest director Erik Van Looy gets to trying the Memento route of putting the viewer in the man's shoes. It's not clear whether they represent the memories he's losing or the way he sees the world, or the way he remembers things. In fact, the movie would be better off without them; a simple shot of him staring into space would be quite enough to convey the point. The movie is too long (more than two hours), and the closest it gets to a big action sequence is actually rather tedious and could easily be trimmed. Still, Van Looy gets off some powerfully memorable moments: A scene in which Angelo uses soap suds to make a giant crosshairs target on a window, which he then uses, is totally stylin', as is the one-liner that follows: "Nobody will miss him . . . and I didn't miss him, either."
It'll be interesting to see how the American remake handles the whole running gag of automobile envy. Freddy has a major gripe with BMW drivers who cut him off in traffic; he imagines they're all driven by "hairdressers and doormen." So, in a mini revenge subplot, he sabotages any BMW he sees by urinating into the door locks. This, he claims, makes the interior and exterior stink, and is far more effective at irritating the owner than breaking a headlight. One wonders if the anti-SUV brigade on these shores is familiar with the concept.