Before sitting down to watch the new Liam Neeson movie, audiences have been prepped to see the weary-faced action star kicking ass with class, thanks to entertaining flicks like “Taken,” “Non-Stop,” and “The Grey.” But, for every “Taken” there’s a “Taken 2,” and if one year the grizzly Irishman can come out with something as forceful as “The Grey,” the following year “Battleship” can sink people’s opinions once more. It’s just not simple to put a finger on the prospects of a new Neeson film, particularly one directed by screenwriter-turned-director Scott Frank. The only previous feature Frank has directed was the overlooked and underrated “The Lookout,” and he’s also got “Get Shorty” and “Out Of Sight” under his writing belt, as well as the less memorable “Flight Of The Phoenix.” With this combined pedigree from the actor and writer-director, the two dominant forces behind “A Walk Among The Tombstones,” we can expect an assortment of riches and rags. And that’s precisely what we get.
Off the queue of popular detectives to emerge from pulpy American crime novels comes Matthew Scudder, the protagonist in an ongoing series of books by Lawrence Block. Frank’s adaptation introduces us to cop Scudder (Neeson) in 1991, where we meet him on his way to a local bar that’s friendly with the boys in blue. He orders his usual — two shots of whiskey with a side of coffee. A few thugs attempt to rob the bar, shoot the barman dead, and start fleeing from Scudder’s drunken wrath. In hot pursuit, he kills two, injures a third, and this presents us with the badass, take-no-prisoners Liam Neeson we’ve grown accustomed to. Or so we think. After the title sequence, we jump forward to 1999 and see a more at peace and sober Scudder, trying to enjoy a steak and read the papers. In walks Peter (Boyd Holbrook) who’s heard of Scudder’s reputation and needs him to help his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens).
Kenny’s wife has been kidnapped for ransom by two degenerate nutters, who got their money but proceeded to chop her up into little pieces anyway. The cops can’t be involved because Kenny makes his lavish living through drug trafficking, so Scudder — now working as a nonplussed, unlicensed, PI — is just the man to help him. Scudder takes some convincing, but after realizing the depths of depravity of the two kidnappers, who as it turns out are doing this on a serial basis, he decides to find them and stop them. Along the way, Scudder forms an unlikely alliance with a young orphan boy and continues to go to his regular AA meetings, which he’s been attending since 1991.
As far as pacing goes, “A Walk Among The Tombstones” is more of a stroll than a canter, which adds to the comfort of watching a modest case unfold without getting inundated in gun-blazing, karate-chopping action. Any way you flip it, the biggest appeal in ‘Tombstones’ is the nonchalant character of Matthew Scudder. An off-hand mention of an ex-wife is all we get in terms of the detective’s personal history, which relieves Frank from forcing any emotional baggage onto the character; a conscious decision since Block’s Scudder is additionally defined by an ex-wife in the books, along with an escort girlfriend. This isn’t a revenge story, a narrative built on personal vendetta, or the arc of a grief-stricken husband; all roles Neeson has mastered and, in many ways, been pigeonholed in. If anything, Neeson plays that guy for all of 5 minutes before the opening credits, and then swiftly leaves that part of his performance behind to portray a much more demure, unperturbed and mysterious Scudder for the rest of the film. The calm unfolding of events and leisurely flow of Frank’s screenplay compliments Neeson’s performance, and these two combined forces instill a kind of serenity into ‘Tombstones’ that should prolong the picture’s shelf life.
The film’s tranquil nature rebounds off of various supporting roles and stylistic moments. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson’s groundskeeper is a pivotal piece in the puzzle, and even if his screen time doesn’t reach double digits, his nuanced performance and glib exchanges with Neeson are one of the film’s subtler highlights. The gray backdrop, injected a few times with splashes of vibrant color or sunlight (as with the white opening credits full of hair and skin, evocative of a sadistic distant cousin to Maurice Binder’s James Bond title designs) is the work of DP Mihai Malaimare Jr., he of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” fame, and adds to the moral grayness of the ambiance. Some effective plays with freeze-frames and overlapped voicing during the film’s climactic moments are effective, even while bordering on the formulaic. All of these elements, among others, help make “A Walk Among The Tombstones” something of a relief from the usual jacked-up excessiveness found in the Hollywood mainstream.
Then again, with intensity levels turned low, the film has moments of insipidness that aren’t helped by a handful of bland characters. The personal history between brothers Peter and Kenny, along with the reason behind Scudder’s AA meetings, feels tacky and inconsistent with the rest of the film’s patient developments. David Harbour plays a good sadistic psychopath, but the villainy in the film is presented with an ambiguity that’s more empty than fascinating. You’ll walk away almost certain that you’ve seen a decent thriller, but your thoughts may stumble on the word “thrill.”
Neeson’s star power should make “A Walk Among The Tombstones” a viable contender in the box-office. Despite some of the picture’s lackluster moments and standard characteristics, Scott Frank has exploited his writing talents to successfully adapt an intriguing personality onto the screen, and create a morally complex enough environment to keep intrigue sustained throughout. Then, of course, we have Liam Neeson himself. There’s shades of various characters he’s played in recent memory, but in Matt Scudder we see a Neeson who is getting pretty tired of all the nonsense around him; and we’re glad to be with him every step of the way. [B-]