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‘Sleeping Dogs’ Review: Russell Crowe Plays an Ex-Cop With Dementia in a Tedious Thriller

You know you’re getting old when your favorite movie stars are starting to play characters afflicted with dementia. Arriving shortly on the heels of Knox Goes Away, featuring Michael Keaton as a hitman suffering from the condition, is Adam Cooper’s neo-noir thriller starring Russell Crowe as an ex-cop whose mental condition has deteriorated so dramatically that he’s forced to leave notes plastered throughout his apartment, Memento-style. Despite the plot element’s familiarity, it’s still the most intriguing element of Sleeping Dogs, a sluggishly rendered mystery that audiences will have long stopped caring about before it reaches its conclusion.

Crowe plays Roy Freeman, a former homicide detective whose sad state of being is immediately signified not only by those notes offering the simplest of reminders but also the stack of Hungry-Man frozen dinners in his freezer. He’s wearing a large bandage on his head, the remnant of experimental surgery he’s recently had to potentially reverse his condition. In the meantime, on the advice of his doctor he tries to stimulate his mind via such things as assembling jigsaw puzzles.

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But a much better mind-invigorating puzzle presents itself when he’s contacted by an advocacy group for death row prisoners (think the Innocence Project) about a man shortly to be executed for the murder of a university professor that Roy investigated a decade earlier. He agrees to meet with the condemned man (Pacharo Mzembe), who professes his innocence despite having confessed to the crime. Roy decides to dig deeper, contacting his former partner Jimmy (Tommy Flanagan) to jog his memory. Along the way, we learn that Roy left his job not because of his condition but rather because of a drunk-driving conviction.

The film soon leads us down a rabbit hole involving a memoir written by a former assistant (Harry Greenwood) to the dead man (Marton Csokas, displaying his formidable charisma) and a romantic triangle that develops between them and one of the professor’s students (Karen Gillan), who might as well be wearing the label “femme fatale” on her forehead.

With this jarring shift in perspective, the story becomes so convoluted that viewers may start to think they share Roy’s condition. Which would be fine if what transpired onscreen was more compelling — no one knows what the hell is going on in The Big Sleep either, and it’s impossible to stop watching. But Sleeping Dogs proves so lackadaisical in its pacing that you lose the urge to keep up.

If you’re a fan of Eddie Mueller’s Noir Alley on TCM (and if you’re not, you might as well forget about this film), you’ll know that the dapper host makes fun of the fact that memory loss and amnesia are such oft-used plot devices in the genre that they practically invite parody. That feels like the case here, especially with the big twist reveal at the end that fails to land with the hoped-for shock value.

Cooper — making his directorial debut after writing screenplays for such films as The Transporter Refueled and Assassin’s Creed — does his best to energize the proceedings with visual flourishes conveying his protagonist’s deteriorated mental state. But their overuse only serves to slow down the film even further.

While the talented Gillan can be effective in a variety of roles, this isn’t one of them. Much more effective is Flanagan, who previously worked with Crowe on Gladiator and with whom he shares a strong, lived-in chemistry.

Crowe himself, as usual, is the best thing in the film, once again upgrading less than optimal material with his indelible screen presence. If the charismatic actor had been born decades earlier, he would have been spending his mature years mixing it up onscreen with the likes of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.

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