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Photograph by Sofie Silbermann

Got Himself a Gun: Jan Decleir walks the mean streets of Antwerp.

Hit Man Hunt

'The Memory of a Killer' wallows in the sordid underbelly of crime-ridden ... Belgium

By Richard von Busack

SITTING IN A TOWER restaurant looking over the old harbor of Marseilles, an aged gunman named Angelo Ledda (Jan Decleir) is recruited for a job. Though he protests that he is retired, Ledda is ignored: "In this business we never retire." True words, to be engraved in the Hit Man Hall of Fame, next to "Bullets don't kill, dames do," and "I ain't saying nuffink, copper." Ledda is a silver-haired Anthony Quinn type with a black Italian suit and a drawstring-tight mouth. Fate pulls the string tighter on Ledda's lips when he gets word of his new assignment: Belgium. "I hate Belgium," Ledda grumbles. Says his control, "So does everybody else."

The Memory of a Killer takes its viewers and stuffs them in that place the sun never shines, Antwerp—a city of whores with platinum hair and old/young faces; ignored wives who tell their soon-to-be-murdered husbands to do them a favor and buy a better grade of perfume for their mistresses; insufficiently bereaved wealthy widows in red corsets who like to pour champagne over their bounteous boobs and then ask homicide detectives if they want a drink.

Two of the brighter Antwerp cops—disheveled sweets-eating detective Verstuyft (Werner De Smedt) and slick detective Vincke (Koen De Bouw)—pick up Ledda's trail. They have their problems: they're Flemish policemen irritated at the French-speaking Walloons who always get job preference. And they chafe at encounters with the cryptomilitary national gendarmerie. (The Memory of a Killer shows a Lowlands parallel to the hostility between the Paris cops and the hot-shot paramilitary national police, as seen in French policiers).

Between these distractions, Verstuyft and Vincke hunt down Ledda, who double-crosses his employer and leaves a trail of stiffs. He's furious because he learns why they brought him north: he is supposed to put two bullets in the head and one in the chest of a child prostitute. And you don't touch children in this business. (That motto goes in the Hall of Fame also.)

The problems with the film are those elements that probably got it sold for the American remake. The plot is too easy to figure out. If a person lives in a castle and keeps a taxidermed polar bear next to his desk, he's the villain, especially if the castle is lit as neon-green as a hot-sheet motel. And the film can't end, already: it dribbles out in a series of telescoped finales where the previously fallible Ledda suddenly becomes Batman or something. (Moreover, the scene of the antihero fixing a bullet wound by pouring hootch on it and setting it alight was laughable in 1940, and it hasn't aged like fine wine.)

Still: Local color to the max, cityscapes of this rough-hewn, oil-derrick-littered city under its glowering North Sea skies. For backstory, we get a touch of the Catholic Church's former don't-ask-don't-tell policy regarding child abuse. And we have the adventures of a tough, dour hit man who (nice gimmick) is losing his mind to Alzheimer's during this, his last assignment. But no one retires in this business; did I say that already?

The Memory of a Killer (R; 120 min.), directed by Erik Van Loony, written by Van Looy, and Carl Joos, photographed by Danny Elsen and starring Jan Decleir, Koen De Bouw and Werner De Smedt, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the August 31-September 6, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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