As a dark, moody thriller and detective yarn, you could do a lot worse than A Walk Among the Tombstones. While it certainly doesn’t set the genre on its ear or blaze any new trails in terms of style, it’s a well-paced, well-told mystery that holds your attention while taking great pains to honor its source material, the Matthew Scudder novels of master crime writer Lawrence Block.
It just also happens to have Liam Neeson leading the cast, but aside from his box office draw that’s not necessarily a good thing these days.
Primarily adapted from the 1992 novel of the same name, but also borrowing plot elements and characters from other books in Block’s mystery works featuring his most memorable recurring character (17 novels, 1 collection of short stories), A Walk Among the Tombstones features Neeson portraying Scudder, an ex-NYPD detective and recovering alcoholic living and working in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen as an unlicensed private investigator. Scudder’s solitary life revolves around regularly attending AA meetings and occasionally taking cases, or as he calls it, “doing favors for friends.” It’s through one of his meetings that he’s found by Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), a fellow recovering addict whose wealthy brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) has a favor to ask: find the men who kidnapped his wife Carrie, demanded and received a substantial ransom for her return, and then murdered and mutilated her while recording it all on an audio cassette for Kenny’s “listening pleasure.”
The fact that Kenny’s a heroin trafficker prevents him from going to the proper authorities about his case, leading him to seek help from Scudder, who with some convincing agrees to do the favor. The investigation that follows will lead him to a series of brutal kidnappings and grisly murders all happening in a city so preoccupied by Y2K paranoia and panic (the film version’s story is set in 1999) that murders, disappearances, and body parts found in garbage bags floating in a cemetery pond can all go relatively unnoticed or unpublicized in the media. “People are afraid of all the wrong things,” one of the kidnappers intones while reading a Y2K inspired headline in the Post. He says it smiling, knowing its that very fact that allows him and his partner to conduct their bloody business.
Writer/director Scott Frank has built a successful career in Hollywood adapting detective stories and crime thrillers from such noted authors as Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, Out of Sight), James Lee Burke (Heaven’s Prisoners), and Philip K. Dick (Minority Report) for the screen. As a director working from his own screenplay, he lets the story unfold at a slow, steady pace, keeping the audience’s viewpoint focused almost entirely on Scudder and his interactions with Kenny, with witnesses, and with TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a young artist living on the streets who insinuates himself into Scudder’s life as his new “protege.” He also keeps the action very grounded — there are no car chases, no explosions, no obligatory sex scenes or love interests — and the disturbing acts of torture and mutilation carried out by the villains here are only heavily implied in the telling, not overly or graphically shown. Frank seems to understand that no amount of gore, stylized or not, can match what the audience’s imagination might craft when watching the film and left to its own devices, and the “less is more” approach works, for the most part, in setting the right mood for the piece as a whole.
Unfortunately, that somewhat minimalist approach may also serve to not make the film very memorable, and also what certainly works against the film is the casting of Liam Neeson. The 62-year-old Irish star arguably has become inextricable from his role in Taken, the film that rejuvenated his box-office bankability and introduced him to a new generation of moviegoers. It’s hard to look at the marketing for A Walk Among the Tombstones and Neeson’s presence in it and not be reminded of Taken and the action/thriller work that Neeson has done since that film. The advertising even highlights a moment in the film when Neeson talks to his adversary on the phone, clearly to show potential ticket buyers, “Hey guys! Look, we’ve got Liam Neeson being a badass on the phone again – come see our movie!”
Neeson’s work itself in the film is workmanlike. He doesn’t break new ground here or show us anything in his performance that we haven’t seen him do before — if anything, he’s just a lot less invincible than he’s been in film the last few times out, and he shows that he’s terrible at doing a Brooklyn accent. But what similarity there is between his work here and Taken/Unknown/Taken 2/Non-Stop, when added to the marketing’s concerted effort to connect audiences with his previous work in order to get them back into the theater one more time, combines to create what will probably be an insurmountable preconceived notion about the film. That notion is sure to color how much audiences actually enjoy what they get — better that they should focus on the fine work here of actor Dan Stevens, who shows some serious chops in playing a character about as different as humanly possible from his beloved Matthew Crawley character from BBC’s “Downton Abbey.” He’s in a number of films coming over the next year, and if his effort here is any indication, he’s a breakout star in the making.
So is it worth seeing? If you’re a fan of the genre, sure. Otherwise, wait for it on cable. It’s sure to be featured on some Spike TV “tough guys movie marathon” in the near future, probably aired right after Taken and Taken 2.
Score: 3 out of 5
A Walk Among the Tombstones
Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook. Directed by Scott Frank.
Running Time: 113 minutes
Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity.