2014 - 114 minutes
Directed by: Scott Frank
Written by: Scott Frank
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian Bradley
Liam Neeson’s meteoric rise to hypermature action star began with an expertly delivered dire warning via phone in the trailer for Taken. That scene, and his ability to elevate the blandest of action fare with seemingly minimal effort, has certainly connected with the masses. While he’s sprinkled in some smaller-scale fare, the 60-plus-year-old has been known primarily as a big budget butt kicker as of late. In A Walk Among the Tombstones his larger-than-life hero persona is scaled back and thrust into a ugly, brutal world where the good guys are fallible and the bad guys are vile monsters instead of cartoony caricatures.
Set mostly in 1999, former police detective Matthew Scudder (Neeson) works as an unlicensed P.I., attends A.A. meetings to help maintain sobriety, and remains haunted by the event that pushed him to quit the force. His status makes him a popular resource for unsavory types like drug trafficker Kenny (Dan Stevens), whose wife was kidnapped and then killed even after the ransom was paid. Kenny hires Scudder to find the savages, Ray and Albert (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson), so they can get what’s coming to them. With the help homeless kid T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), who translates slang and operates Yahoo!, and a strange cemetery groundskeeper (Sebastian Roche), Scudder discovers the psychotic killers are targeting drug dealers and their families. After they kidnap the young daughter of a Russian kingpin, the broken man angles to capture the killers and perhaps find personal redemption for the event that brought him into this underworld.
The thriller is a good fit for Neeson and, as written and directed by Scott Frank, doesn’t wrap the carnage in an easily-digestible package. Though it could use a little fat trimming, the film is mostly successful in highlighting the grime. The Scudder character is the central figure in a whopping 17 novels from author Lawrence Block, and Neeson’s presence makes him feel like a detective who’s been through his share of scrapes. Stevens is appropriately cold and detached, playing things straight without trying to be a sympathetic victim. Boyd Holbrook also deserves mention as the trafficker’s junkie younger brother, though their brotherly entanglements are unpacked a bit too quickly, too late to add punch to a third act denouement.
On the other side of the coin, Harbour indulges a little too much in the scarfing down of scenery, and models his intonation a little too closely after The Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill. Adam David Thompson is decidedly more unsettling as the silent Albert, which is more in tune with the film’s theme of general gloom and creeping despair. There are several references to the pending disaster of Y2K – which we now know was way overblown – and it illustrates the trumped up paranoia of the day-to-day that takes precedent over very tangible, terrible threats that are lurking in the shadows and on the fringes.
While A Walk Among the Tombstones maintains a somber mood, climactic constructs do get in the way of the unpleasantness. T.J. gets into a sticky situation to be the good kid in peril and provide useful information, while both the killers and Scudder break their meticulous protocol in service of a graveyard shootout. A too-composed recitation of A.A.’s 12 steps over narratively congruent moments (complete with freeze-frames) doesn’t help matters, either. Issues aside, Frank, and especially Neeson, find the right levels of grace and gravity to make an impact.