Dutch Noir: 'Memory of a Killer'

Jan Decleir as Angelo Ledda in 'Memory of a Killer'

Jan Decleir plays Angelo Ledda, a hit man whose fragmentary memory drives the plot of the film. Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

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Film critic Kenneth Turan reviews Memory of a Killer, a Dutch noir thriller about a hit man who's developed Alzheimer's disease. The film is based on the much-praised crime novel series by Jef Geeraerts.

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Films from Belgium are not so common in this country, but "Memory of a Killer" might make you wish they were. The film has won five Belgian Oscars. Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan says it deserved every one.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

Angelo Ledda orders fries at a restaurant only to be told that he's already ordered them. He looks momentarily confused, as well he might, for Ledda is a ruthless and implacable hit man, someone who would take out his own father if that were the mission. But as the fries incident hints, he's getting older and struggling with the advancing stages of Alzheimer's. He's not sure his mind will allow him to finish his latest assignment.

The idea of an assassin with Alzheimer's might sound like the setup for a Monty Python routine, but the memory of a killer from Belgium is anything but a joke. This is one terrific thriller with several wicked twists up its sleeve, each more satisfying than the last. Director Erik Van Looy has given the film a propulsive style that makes the most of such unusual material.

One of the things that makes "Memory" so effective is the sweet complexity of its plot. Far from a simple good guy vs. bad guy story, it's got numerous characters of uncertain and ever-changing moral standing. These folks ultimately help, hamper and frustrate each other as they attempt to deal with a specially dark criminal activity.

Ledda is wonderfully played by the veteran Jan Decleir. The hit man turns out to be a compelling combination of cold-bloodedness and fragility. You see him complete the first part of his assignment with impeccable professionalism, but also resort to writing his room number on his arm. Despite his ever-present medicine, he falls into occasional fugue states and worries about how long it will be before the final curtain descends.

Then unexpectedly, Ledda develops a moral qualm about part of his assignment. The difficulties that result from that make him both a target and an avenger. He becomes a classic anti-hero wanting to take out the people at the top of the criminal pyramid. But fearful that his mental state will not allow that, he attempts to plan for that eventuality as well.

As detailed as all this sounds, it barely scratches the surface of "Memory of a Killer's" twists of plot. If you're been waiting since Memorial Day for a Cracker Jack thriller, your summer of discontent is finally over.

INSKEEP: That's Kenneth Turan, a film critic for MORNING EDITION and for the Los Angeles Times.

This is NPR News.

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