Monday, September 22, 2014

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Directed by: Scott Frank.
Written by: Scott Frank based on the novel by Lawrence Block.
Starring: Liam Neeson (Matt Scudder), Dan Stevens (Kenny Kristo), Brian 'Astro' Bradley (TJ), Boyd Holbrook (Peter), David Harbour (Ray), Adam David Thompson (Albert), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (James Loogan), Mark Consuelos (Reuben Quintana), Sebastian Roché (Yuri Landau), Danielle Rose Russell (Lucia).

Liam Neeson's unlikely, late career transformation into an action star has certainly been good for his wallet – but hasn’t really offered the actor much in the way of interesting roles. His work in films like Taken (and its sequel) as well as Unknown and Non-Stop have all delivered audiences some silly action, but none are all that memorable. His best work in recent years was in Joe Carnahan`s The Grey – an unlikely survival tale of man vs. wolf that was a whole lot better than it made it seem. Watching the trailers for A Walk Among the Tombstones, you could be forgiven in thinking that this was another Neeson action movie where he uses his `very special skills` to track down and kill evildoers. But A Walk Among the Tombstones is much better than that – much deeper and darker and less dependent on action. After an opening shootout, Neeson`s Matt Scudder pretty much leaves his guns at home for most of the rest of the movie. He has killed before, and isn’t interested in doing so again. Written for the screen and directed by the talented Scott Frank (screenwriter of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, and writer-director of the hugely underrated The Lookout) – A Walk Among the Tombstones is much more a throwback to the adult thrillers, and detective noirs of the 1970s. It devolves a little near the end, getting uglier than is really necessary, and for a movie that is about the deaths of many women at the hands of sadistic men, the film could certainly have used a living female character. But overall, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a far better film that it seems like in the trailers.

In the film, Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former NY City detective who after that shootout that opens the film quits his job, and quits drinking. Now he’s an unlicensed P.I. – which, in his words, means sometimes he does favors for people, and they give him gifts in return. His latest case starts when he meets Peter (Boyd Holbrook) – a junkie – who wants him to meet with his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) a drug dealer. Kenny`s wife was kidnapped the previous week, and the kidnappers demanded $1 million for her safe return – although he negotiated them down to $400K. He pays the money – but the kidnappers kill his wife anyway. Kenny wants Scudder to find the men who did this, and bring them to him – at first Scudder refuses, but you know how this will go. Scudder is an old school detective – he doesn’t much care about the upcoming Y2K crisis, and when he goes to the library to do research, he still uses microfiche. It’s while at the library, he meets TJ (Brian Astro Bradley) – a homeless, African-American teenager who wants to become Scudders sidekick – and can help him do some of the more technologically advanced research. Soon, Scudder figures out that Kenny’s wife was hardly the first woman to go missing in the same way – and he starts to close in on who is responsible.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is mainly an old school detective yarn – the film mentions both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe – and Scudder is similarly a man with principles in a world where no one else seems to have any. After the opening shootout, there is not very much action until the blood soaked finale. In its place, is Scudder pounding the pavement, interviewing an assortment of lowlifes, and slowly getting closer to the two psychopaths who are killing these women.

Frank is a talented director, and an even better writer. Adapting Lawrence Block`s novel (unread by me), he gives the dialogue a nice, hardboiled quality – and if there is one thing Neeson can do well, it’s deliver hardboiled dialogue. He's in nearly every scene in the movie, and he anchors the film. The film is more interested in Scudder than even its plot – and certainly more so than the action, as Frank even undercuts the finale by using some interesting flashbacks during it. The film takes a number of very dark turns, but for all the sadism in the film, Frank doesn’t show very much actual violence – allowing the audience to fill in the gaps.

The movie has its share of problems. For one thing, I am getting a little tired of TV shows and movies where there are more dead women in the film than live ones – and that’s certainly the case here, as none of the numerous female victims have any real screen time, and the film has no other women who leave an impact. I also think Frank may be reaching a little when he tries to make some statements larger than the movie itself – including the film’s final shot, which seems out of place given what else has happened in the movie.

But overall, A Walk Among the Tombstones is the kind of detective mystery for adults that I had thought Hollywood had forgotten how to make – and the type of film that I had assumed Neeson was not interested in making. It’s more realistic than anything he’s starred in for a while – and a hell of lot better.

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