That would be Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 screen adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. It’s a perfect film – certainly a near-perfect adaptation of the source novel – and deserves the top spot on my list. My second best? Hmm. Well, I guess I’d have to give props to Ralph Meeker’s work as Mike Hammer in 1955’s underrated Kiss Me Deadly. If you pressed me to name a third, then I’d tell you that Dick Powell does a great Philip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet: though the picture varies somewhat from the Raymond Chandler novel, it’s still an interesting interpretation that delivers some wry humor in just the right package.
I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that I’ve always considered myself a connoisseur of detective fiction and films. While I’d never try to pass myself off as any expert on the subject (or any subject, for that matter), I do know a bit more than the average Joe. I’d hope my knowledge could be put to the challenge of deciphering what makes a good crime noir tick when it should’ve tocked. You can’t watch these films as often and as many times as I have and learn nothing … or, at least, that’s what my film teachers told me.
In any event, there’s a subset of Science Fiction films that dabbles with the private eye, and even a master like Isaac Asimov saw the creative potential as far back as 1953 when he paired up a detective with a robot in The Caves Of Steel. Purists will tell you that the novel is considered part of the author’s Robot Series; and, in 2004, the book was nominated for a retroactive Hugo Award For Best Novel (1954). So if Asimov’s in your court regarding the crime procedural, then you know you’re in good company!
2021’s Reminiscence tries very hard to capitalize on these possibilities. It takes the tired-but-true ‘knight in shining armor’ of the past, covers him in the requisite emotional baggage, and transports him into a world of tomorrow that doesn’t function all that different from the 1940’s or 1950’s … well, except for some of the usual set trappings that go hand-in-hand with what Hollywood thinks looks like good Science Fiction … or, at least, good enough to pass it off as SciFi on an unsuspecting audience.
Instead of taking us forward, it reminisced a bit too much about today, sending us backward … a bit of a miss, if you ask this guy.
From the product packaging: “Nick Bannister, a private investigator of the mind, navigates the past by helping his clients access lost memories. His life is forever changed when he takes on a new client, Mae. As Bannister fights to find the truth about her disappearance, he uncovers a violent conspiracy and must answer the question: How far would you go to hold on to the ones you love?”
There’s an inherent risk to telling stories about fractured reality: once the science behind how the past gets explored has been clearly established, viewers watching closely start to peel back the layers of the narrative. Most likely, they’ll start challenging the story as presented, and this has the film falling like a house of cards.
In some ways, flashbacks are very much akin to playing a film within a film: eventually, what’s real and what’s imagined lose the substance that makes them separate and identifiable. Reminiscence – as good as it is when it’s good – avoids the trappings of its Science Fiction idea, instead bringing into focus Bannister (played by Hugh Jackman), his rocky partnership with Mae (Thandiwe Newton), and his real-world investigation into Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) and her illicit past. Though the construct of trafficking in memories is interesting and occasionally handled well in writer/director Lisa Joy’s film, it just never rose beyond the level of visual trickery to be more than just … well … nifty.
Alas, Joy herself has burned through much shoe leather in the realm of manufacturing ‘gotcha’ fiction: I’m somewhat notorious in these parts for separating HBO’s Westworld (for which she serves as producer and writer) from its bloated reputation for “great” storytelling. What others have found “incisive” and “revelatory” I’ve called “predictable” and even “incoherent.” This isn’t to discount any of the series’ ideas because I do so very much love tales that focus on the challenges of not only developing Artificial Intelligence but also living with it; rather it’s just to suggest that the award-winning program isn’t nearly as competent nor interesting as AMC’s Humans, a program that accomplished vastly more (with much less) than Westworld likely ever will. Why? Because it’s about people and robots not so much in contest with one another but surviving the fact that they will have to share the same space.
Westworld is about the fight for dominance; Humans is about acceptance.
Big narrative difference.
Setting those complaints aside, Reminiscence is good though a bit wet at times. Jackman delivers a disarmingly good world-weary detective, and Newton clearly understands the responsibilities of serving as his partner in Joy’s story. They’re two halves of one whole – she’s the ‘Watts’ (aka Watson) to his Sherlock – and her skepticism is a perfect foil to his professional sarcasm. Ferguson is good as the damsel with a secret, but I didn’t buy her character’s somewhat nefarious past: it just wasn’t written nor delivered with much conviction, at least not to the level required for me to suspend my disbelief. The script is peppered with enough hard-boiled sentiment to make dime novel author Mickey Spillane proud, though he probably would’ve liked a few more fisticuffs thrown in here and there for good measure. Cliff Curtis turns in a mixed performance as a crooked cop, and Daniel Wu is utterly wasted in a role so stereotypical it’s quite possibly a hate crime.
As for the world as depicted? Meh. Joy again represses anything original and instead resorts to popular convention, showing a U.S. coastline succumbing to Global Climate Something-Or-Other, a development that turns Miami into the kinder, gentler version of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. Bannister walks everywhere with his nice, leather shoes parading in ankle-deep water (are they ignorant in the future about the damage to good shoes or did Jackman himself nix the galoshes?). Taxis are handily replaced by boats. Honestly, I was watching closely for gill people to turn up somewhere along the way, but thankfully there was some restraint in pilfering what had been done before.
You’ve heard of Chinatown? This was a bit … Tunatown. Good, but undeniably fishy.
Plus, can you imagine the deafening outcry from Feminists if a man had written a script wherein the female/victim of the story has to go to the male/hero of the story to ask for help finding her keys? Why, womens’ groups would’ve picketed this film into the Stone Age! Oh, the misogyny!
And that’s a crying shame because in its core Reminiscence has a few good ideas, most of them limited to single lines here and there. (FYI: the best detective novels are written much the same.) Memories fade, and perhaps they fade for a reason, the audience is told. If they didn’t, then we’d spend our days living inside our minds where are best moments have already taken place, leaving us ignorant to seeking out and exploring even better ones. That’s the sentiment that propels the film when it’s working with material worthy of being explored. Somewhere submerged under all that water are some moments not so waterlogged; I just wish Joy and her cast and crew spent more time bringing those to the surface and letting them dry in the sun.
Love a good Science Fiction story? Great. Love a good detective story? Even better. Reminiscence is a serviceable blend of the two unique genres, but in all honesty it really only flirts with the conventions of both. The science depicted here could’ve easily been removed and replaced with traditional detective work, and the same results could’ve been achieved. Though Jackman fills the shoes respectfully of, say, a contemporary Humphrey Bogart, a few of his discoveries were a bit too contrived to be authentically ‘gumshoe.’ (How does he find one single, solitary earring in the veritable sea outside his office building?) It’s best to think of this film as the clone of better ones – you lose a bit of quality with each subsequent copy – in order to quell any major disappointment.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Warner Bros. provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray disc of Reminiscence (2021) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.