"The Memory of a Killer (De Zaak Alzheimer)" is a sophisticated synthesis of several genres into a stylish thriller. There's the opening shots of a steam engine, saluting European film noir contrasting with the sharp sunlight of corrupt Marseille; the Georges Simenon-like police investigation contemporized with gritty Brit mystery crimes and the hunky bantering buddy cops where one is a wild rule-breaker and his boss is an Eliot Ness straight arrow; the samurai code of honor; the Western where the old gunslinger takes on one last conflict, like "The Unforgiven" and already adapted to "Man on the Train (L'Homme du Train)"; a revenge showdown, like the recent "Four Brothers"; the memory stream of consciousness tricks of "Memento" and the snappy editing of Hong Kong crime thrillers like "Infernal Affairs (Wu jian dao)." And we even get a "The Sopranos"-like psychological profile of a hit man.
While director Erik Van Looy smoothly integrates all these elements together in adapting what must have been a complex novel, this is terrific, intelligent popular entertainment and only its subtitles keep it in limited release in the U.S. in art houses. Too bad a Hollywood adaptation is inevitable.
The film has an exciting dual structure of following the cops and the criminal as they get intertwined and chase each other, as each sorts out vengeance and some justice (with surprising collateral damage) ever higher up the responsibility ladder so that our sympathies, and theirs, are compromised. While we atypically don't see anything of the cops' personal lives (except with an amusing visual twist that it's the guy in the shower), we do get thrust into their quite believable bureaucratic and legal wranglings, which, while a bit confusing for an American audience, can be inferred to be similar to the jurisdictional conflicts between local police departments and the FBI that we've seen in plenty of movies and TV shows. The English subtitles seem pretty good at communicating the localisms, though some of the cultural conflict in Belgium between French and Flemish speakers is lost, particularly when it is significant which language is being spoken.
The twist that is given away in the original title of the film, translated as "The Alzheimer Affair," is that the highly intelligent and perceptive criminal, the charismatic Jan Decleir, realizes he is losing his memory, and sees his near future clearly in his hospitalized brother. We get inside his head as he is trying to out race not only the cops, his traitorous client and duplicitous boss, but himself, so that his taunt of "too slow" takes on a double meaning. His professionalism takes over even when the flashy cinematography indicates he doesn't quite remember what he's done.
While the body count is high, the violence is one on one and is not gratuitous. Each death ratchets up the tensions and complications as what at first seems street level crime has cynical political implications. Much of the film takes place in the dark, like "Collateral," and while there's a fair amount of sudden coming up from behind scares, that's usually the start of a suspenseful scene where cat and mouse decisions ricochet off in surprising ways.
The music very effectively supports the action, particularly when the story continues in an unexpected direction, though the choice of a Starsailor song over the credits didn't seem to fit.
It's a bit perplexing that "The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De Battre mon coeur s'est arrete)" is getting wider distribution (probably because it's a remake of an American film and has a young hunk at the center), when this is the better European crime thriller of the summer.