A lot of thrillers have asked us to identify with assassins — the genre dates at least back to The Day of the Jackal, in 1973 — but I’d be hard-pressed to name one that makes a hitman as sympathetic, if not sentimental, as The Memory of a Killer. Angelo Ledda (Jan Decleir) is a veteran of his trade, the sort of roving international lethal weapon to whom the standard adjectives (ruthless, tight-lipped) all apply. In his twilight years, though, he has begun to soften. He is secretly suffering from early Alzheimer’s, which is supposed to be the film’s big hook, though before you get stoked at how interesting that sounds, rest assured: He barely exhibits any symptoms. Hired to snuff two people in Belgium, Ledda discovers that one of his marks is a 12-year-old girl — a child prostitute (pimped by her own father) at the center of a blackmail scheme. He refuses to carry out the order, in part because he was a victim of childhood abuse himself.
At this point, I was just about ready for an Oprah episode (”Hitmen Who Cry Inside”), and it might have been had the Flemish actor Jan Decleir not played Ledda with burning eyes and a dog-of-hell scowl reminiscent of the later De Niro. At once wounded and incensed, Ledda begins to pick off the people who hired him. He also commences a clue-dropping cat-and-mouse game with the young detective (Koen De Bouw) assigned to the case, a development that might have been more compelling if Ledda weren’t so good at dispensing justice all by himself. The director, Erik Van Looy, knows how to spin a well-oiled policier, but he jacks up the action with ”existential” flash cuts that, like the rest of the movie, end up signifying less than meets the eye.