Liam Neeson’s recent career resurgence as a mature action star has been moving along at a fast clip these past few years, and one constant through films like Taken, Taken 2 and Non-Stop (aside from the fisticuffs, respectable budgets and boffo box-office) has been his characters’ penchant for talking tough on a cell phone. The talk mostly consists of warnings, threats and promises for the evil-doers on the other end of the line, but it has quickly become part of his invincible hard-ass repertoire.
A Walk Among the Tombstones challenges that persona in many ways. Well, in a few ways. Okay fine, Neeson gives the villain grief while talking on a land line. The point is he’s still a tough-talking S.O.B. when his back is against the wall, and while his latest is a far more somber affair than the “fun” action pictures mentioned above his new legion of fans will find much to love here.
Matt Scudder (Neeson) was a cop once, but ever since a shootout left a bystander dead by his bullet Scudder has transformed himself into a sober, unlicensed private investigator. He helps people, and they give him gifts (of the cash variety). His latest case involves a kidnapping where the ransom was paid but the victim was murdered anyway, and now the dead woman’s husband (Dan Stevens) wants Scudder’s help in finding the villains responsible.
Scudder’s been a recovering alcoholic ever since that fateful shooting eighteen years prior, and these days he doesn’t even carry a gun. It’s 1999, and the biggest threat on his horizon is the Y2K bug, but once he accepts this job he finds himself immersed in the dangerous world of some extremely twisted individuals. They’re targeting those most able to pay and least likely to go to the police, and the only contingency these morally bankrupt bastards didn’t plan for is Scudder.
Lawrence Block created Scudder in the mid ’70s, but while there’s been seventeen novels so far this is only the second one to hit the big screen (after 8 Million Ways to Die in ‘86). He’s an honorable guy and a bit of a square – he doesn’t own a cell phone, he researches via microfiche – but he’s the right man to have on your side. Neeson embodies the character beautifully bringing the wear and tear of a man who’s seen too much killing alongside the capabilities of a man who’s done much of the killing.
It’s a far better fit for him than the more cartoonish action heroes he’s been playing as Scudder is a character with depth and motivations well beyond finding his daughter or getting off a plane. Director Scott Frank’s (The Lookout) script spends time with Scudder allowing viewers to get a feel for the man before he comes face to face with the bad guys. Parallel to this we’re also given creepy peeks into the lives and behaviors of the dual killers. Their faces constantly fall into shadow or fade behind the glare on a windshield, but their sociopathic vibe is a nearly tangible thing emanating towards us from their menacing grins.
The first two acts do solid work setting up Scudder and the story, and the only real bump along the way is the introduction of a streetwise and homeless black teenager named TJ (Astro) who Scudder befriends and then allows to ingratiate himself into the investigation. The character is a cliche and a distraction from the simmering brutality elsewhere, and he never feels as real as the world being created around him. He becomes more troublesome in the third act – although to be fair everything else does too – as he continues to be a presence for no reason other than that of contrivance.
Still, he’s the least of the problems in the final thirty minutes as previously smart characters, including Scudder, suddenly become idiots when dealing with psychopathic killers. Frank’s script just gives up on anything resembling a smart decision, and we’re left watching newly lobotomized characters smash into each other. It’s an ugly affair by that point and lacking in anything resembling suspense or surprise.
A Walk Among the Tombstones does a fantastic job introducing its capable and engaging main character, but it bungles the execution of the film’s narrative as time is spent with unnecessary subplots and supporting characters that add nothing to the tale. Missteps aside it would be nice to see Neeson return in Scudder’s shoes as the possibilities here are far more wide-ranging than anything another Taken sequel can give us. Scudder can learn to use cell fans after all.
The Upside: Strong first two acts; some genuine creepiness; Liam Neeson delivers with a more mature character
The Downside: Third act loses smarts and suspense; TJ is an annoying cliche; incomplete DEA subplot
On the Side: An earlier attempt to put the film into production was reportedly set to star Harrison Ford for director Joe Carnahan.