Review: There’s No Mystery or Thrill in Russell Crowe’s Amnesia Murder Drama Sleeping Dogs

Last week, we saw Michael Keaton as a hit man dealing with memory-robbing dementia in Knox Goes Away, and this week we have Russell Crowe as a former homicide detective who has suffered memory loss after a near-fatal accident in Sleeping Dogs. The difference between the two (well, one of them) is that when we meet Crowe’s Roy Freeman, he’s actually going through an experimental treatment that stimulates parts of the brain, hopefully resulting in memories returning, albeit unpredictably and sometimes with delusions entering the picture as well. So instead of convenient memory loss, we get convenient memories returning just when Freeman needs them the most.

In the present, Freeman doesn’t remember any of his old cases, so when he’s summoned to a prison by an inmate who swears he was framed for murder, he doesn’t remember the incident or the circumstances, but he does start to re-investigate. Doing so brings him back into contact with his old partner, Jimmy (Tommy Flanagan), who tells him to leave things alone and that they got the right guy. But Freeman finds out about fingerprints left by a man who worked for the victim named Richard Finn (Harry Greenwood), whose unfinished memoir reads like a transcript of everything that led up to the murder, but without a confession to wrap things up. Years earlier, as a student who couldn’t afford his tuition any longer, Finn was in love with a bright young woman named Laura (Karen Gillan) who got him a well-paying gig organizing a book collection for a rich guy named Joseph Wieder (Marton Csokas), who appeared to be Laura’s secret lover and eventually the murder victim in Freeman’s case.

As they often do, various roads of investigation lead to various suspects, all while Freeman is slowly regaining his memory of both the case and the rest of his life. He’s a former alcoholic who had to stop drinking because of his various medications, but he falls off the wagon eventually, leading to further visions of the time in his life surrounding this case memories that may or not be reliable. As the facts of the case begin to snap into place, so too do the pieces of Freeman’s forgotten past, and Sleeping Dogs ends up feeling like a bunch of overblown, overly complicated nonsense, as is often true of some of our finest new noirs.

Directed by Adam Cooper (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Allegiant, Assassin’s Creed, The Transporter Refueled) and adapted from the novel The Book of Mirrors by Romanian writer E.O. Chirovici, Sleeping Dogs honestly isn’t that difficult to figure out, even if the motive and method of the murder are (primarily because the filmmakers don’t give you any clues until the very end), which ends up feeling like they were making it up as they went along because all of the other suspects seemed too obvious. That being said, Crowe and Gillan are doing solid work, as is usually the case. The issues with the film all revolve around the mystery not being particularly compelling or gripping, the way a good mystery ought to be. Director Cooper tends to paint his movie with broad, sweeping strokes, and a story like this requires more delicate brushwork. As much as I liked what some of the actors were pulling off, I was never drawn into this so-called thriller. My disdain for movies featuring any form of amnesia didn’t help the matter either.

The film is now in limited release in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.