It starts well. Liam Neeson, with facial hair, is knocking back his customary two shots and a coffee. It’s morning, he’s a New York cop, it’s 1991, and he’s sat in a bar where the light bleaches the windows. Suddenly, he’s chasing down bad guys. Things happen. It’s all framed really well, the film grabs your attention, and then? Afraid so. It spends the next two hours very gently letting it go.
Post-credits, the action moves forward to 1999, which director Scott Frank signifies time and time again with reference to the Y2K millennium bug. He notes it so many times you end up convinced it must be a brilliant plot device. It isn’t. It’s a bludgeoning reminder of the year the film is set in, that underpins the many other efforts made to set the mood and tone of the piece.
Neeson’s character, Matt Scudder, has left the police force when we meet him again, instead doing unlicenced private detective work. Enter Dan Stevens, virtually unrecognisable from his Downton Abbey days, as a nervous man with a particular job for Neeson to tackle. That job involves finding the people behind the kidnapping of his wife, although as you might expect, things don’t really go quite to plan.
There are a couple of films in A Walk Among The Tombstones. It works best as a character study, with Neeson on screen for the vast bulk of the film’s running time, and carrying the wear and tear of his character broadly on his shoulders. He’s excellent in the role. Less successful, and you sense this worked a little better in the book the film is based on, is his unlikely teaming up with a youngster by the name of TJ (played by Brian “Astro” Bradley), with the two forming a bond that never really works, or feels right, on screen.
Perhaps the biggest problem lies in the detective side itself, as Neeson gradually uncovers what’s been happening, and why people are disappearing. For the path leads to antagonists that leave you scratching your head at their sheer lack of intelligence. Notwithstanding the fact that it’s not really clear why they’re doing what they’re doing, the last third of the story takes logic jumps that go against the tone of the deathly serious drama up to that point. As a consequence, at the point the film should be building towards its big moments, you’re left stroking your chin and wondering why such an interesting concept took such daft turns.
A pity, as there’s quite a lot to like here. Scott Frank’s directorial style builds on his impressive, and overlooked, debut feature The Lookout, and there are some good performances, an excellent score, and a feeling – in a good way – that this is where Taken could go if it slowed things down a bit. Frank is willing to take his time to unravel his story, eschewing gimmicks and playing things relatively straight. It’s just a shame that his efforts are hobbled by some baffling ingredients in his screenplay.
Still, you get decent quality time with Liam Neeson. And there are some pigeons as well. But there’s a real sense that, for all the qualities of A Walk Among The Tombstones, that there’s a missed opportunity here.
A Walk Among The Tombstones is out in UK cinemas on the 19th September.
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