What might have been a fairly standard combination of revenge tale and police procedural is sparked by a flashy style, a neat narrative twist involving mental disintegration and a great lead performance in “The Memory of a Killer,” aka “The Alzheimer Case,” from Belgian director Erik Van Looy. Jan Decleir, whom you may remember from his sinister turn in the 1997 Dutch Oscar winner “Character,” makes a powerful impression as Angelo Ledda, an aging hit man assigned by his French boss to kill a couple of witnesses in an Antwerp sex ring. With his methodical, unforgiving style, Ledda’s a formidable fellow, even if he is beginning to suffer the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s. But he’s disgusted to find that one of his intended victims is a thirteen-year old girl, and refuses to finish the job, certain that none of his colleagues will, either. He’s mistaken, and when his boss comes from Marseilles to kill not only the girl but him as well, Ledda rebels. Disgusted by the failure of the police to bring down the ring of powerful men behind the sex operation, he undertakes to dismantle it himself against great odds, since the governmental establishment is protecting those behind the scenes. While doing so he knocks heads with honest cop Eric Vincke (Koen de Bouw) and his young partner Freddy (Werner de Smedt), who are stymied in their effort to crack the case by layers of bureaucracy and competing jurisdictions. The last act of the picture is a fairly cerebral cat-and-mouse game, with several feints and turnabouts involving Ledda’s deteriorating condition, that surrounds the attempt to bring down a former minister of state and his thuggish son.
“The Memory of a Killer” is a clever piece of work, constructed by van Looy and Carl Joos with considerable dexterity. There are, of course, a few ruses that seem rather feeble–one scene, in which the cops rush to a place where they know Ledda’s been hiding, intercut with shots of him apparently hearing their arrival, turns out to be a pretty cheap trick. But most of the sequences in which the hit-man disposes of his various quarries are neatly choreographed and smartly shot. And if de Bouw and de Smedt prove disappointingly ordinary as the two cops (though the script tries to spice up their relationship by sewing seeds of discord between them), Decleir certainly compensates with a towering turn as the driven hit-man. Though the twists involving his increasing forgetfulness in the last act strain credulity, he’s so convincing that he almost carries even them off. And the style of the picture, shot in glistening, near-metallic widescreen images by Danny Elsen, is striking.
It’s reported that like so many high-profile European films, “The Memory of a Killer” has already been optioned for an English-language remake. The result is likely to be lamentable, so check out the original on the big screen before it’s defaced by Hollywood. Decleir’s performance alone would be reason enough to see it, but the clever script and nifty execution are added attractions.