With action vehicles like Taken and Non-Stop seemingly his stock in trade these days, it’s nice to see Liam Neeson starring in something like A Walk Among the Tombstones, a dark crime drama much more reliant on character and dialogue than gunplay and physical combat. Based on one of a series of novels by Lawrence Block, Neeson stars as former NYPD officer Matthew Scudder, who left the force and the bottle behind years earlier after an altercation with criminals went horribly wrong and now operates as an “unlicensed” private detective who helps out people while skirting around the edges of the law.
Scudder finds himself pushing at the outer limits of what is legal, in fact, when he is asked by a fellow AA attendee named Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook) to take the case of his brother, drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame, also opening and very good this week in The Guest). Kristo’s wife has been abducted and brutally murdered, and he wants Scudder to find the men responsible. At first reluctant to take the job, Scudder soon learns that the killers have struck before and intend to strike again — unless he can stop them. Complicating matters is TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless boy who Scudder, perhaps against his better judgment, takes under his wing even as the case makes the former cop dangerous to be around.
A Walk Among the Tombstones opens with a superbly filmed chase and shootout — a flashback to the incident that led to Scudder’s retirement — that looks like it could have been lifted out of a ‘70s police thriller. That seems to be the look and vibe that director/screenwriter Scott Frank (The Lookout, Out of Sight) is going for and achieves with the aid of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master), creating a bleak vision of a rundown 1999 New York City that bristles with decay and the specter of death. There is very little that isn’t corrupt or spoiled somehow in this picture of the Big Apple and the constant headlines about Y2K indicate that worse is on the way.
That part of Frank’s script is somewhat heavy-handed, and the women in this world are not handled well either — in fact, they’re basically only good for kidnapping, torture and grisly methods of demise (mostly implied but still disturbing). Fortunately, the rest of the characters are just quirky enough to lift A Walk Among the Tombstones above the pulpy, lurid nature of the material. Neeson’s Scudder, the drug dealer and his addict brother, and other peripheral characters all display enough range to make them feel like real human beings and not the stock detective novel characters that they all essentially are. Less successfully developed is TJ, whose constant quips and interaction with Scudder feels more and more like a gimmick as the film goes on.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is at its best in its first half, when mood and character and the film’s central mystery are all terrifically conveyed. The build-up to the revelation of the killers is also effectively developed, with one character taking shockingly drastic action when he thinks he’s gone too far in helping Scudder find them. It’s unfortunate then that the villains don’t quite live up to their advance hype: the more we see of them in the film’s second half, they are less the ultimate evil that we expected and more a pair of barely competent goons who veer dangerously close to stereotype, making their viciousness seem cheaper than it should and making the now-standard handful of false endings (one of which is matched awkwardly to a voiceover reciting the 12 steps of AA) feel unearned.
In the end, however, this is Neeson’s show and he carries it effortlessly even when the script takes its more conventional later turns. Despite its flaws, A Walk Among the Tombstones still gets under your skin in a way that Neeson’s other generic thrillers do not and reminds us just what a great actor he is. Scudder is a familiar figure — a loner haunted by his past and his demons, looking for redemption — but Neeson and Frank make him vulnerable, compassionate and in his own way ethical. It’s not difficult to see why Block would continue to write about him for decades.
It’s less easy to explain the story’s more sadistic elements to audiences who may be unpleasantly surprised by the way the movie steers into territory previously covered by procedural/horror hybrids like Seven and The Silence of the Lambs. A Walk Among the Tombstones may not be for everyone, but its late September release is also an unfair indicator of its quality. The movie never quite transcends its roots or uses them to achieve greater meaning, but its uneasy nature gives it more of a soul than most other death-and-violence-soaked movies of this type.
A Walk Among the Tombstones opens Friday (September 19).