Where I am at least, A Walk Among the Tombstones is being marketed as the latest action blast from ‘Liam Neeson, star of Taken and Non-Stop’. Cashing in on Neeson’s remarkable late-career resurgence as an action hero is inevitable, and it’s true the film contains kidnappings, and Neeson talking gruffly over the phone to the bad guys, but it’s a very different breed of film. Indeed it could be said that this is Neeson adding some depth to his Taken persona. This is a serious-minded, slow paced crime thriller. The closest it comes to ‘action’ is the first scene when Neeson shoots at some bad guys after they murder the owner of a bar he happens to be in.
He plays Matthew Scudder, a former cop turned unlicensed private eye, whose actions in the opening shootout have had a permanent effect on him, causing him to quit drinking and the police force. Having him be a recovering alcoholic sounds like a lazy way to try and add some complexity to the character (as was the case in Non-Stop, where he also had a drinking problem), but Scudder’s past, and how it affects who he is today, play into many aspects of the plot.
Scudder is different from the typical action man is other ways too, he’s quite anti-gun and violence in general, there’s a particularly memorable scene in which he talks his way out of a knife fight in a surprisingly unconventional way. He’s also reluctant to even get involved in the case to begin with, he’s hired to find the men who murdered Kenny Kristo’s (Dan Stevens) wife. Ultimately motivated by a desire to stop the killers, anti-hero Scudder’s morals are still on the murkier side; he has no apparent qualms with the fact that his employers are heroin dealers (or ‘traffickers’ as they prefer to be called).
Another interesting aspect to A Walk Among the Tombstones is that it’s a period piece, taking place in 1999 (maybe I should start worrying that I’m now seeing period films set in years I remember living through?). It’s adapted from one of a long series of novels by Lawrence Block (one was previously filmed in the eighties), I haven’t read the book but it’s from 1992. The choice by writer-director Scott Frank to bring it up to ‘99 adds an aspect of millennial tension to the atmosphere, with a few Y2K billboards appearing in the background. With a few technological upgrades (Scudder doesn’t even know how to use a computer) the story could have fairly easily been set in the present but having it take place in the nineties seems appropriate because often this really feels like a nineties movie. It’s a relatively straightforward slice of detective fiction that’s rarely seen in cinemas nowadays. I wan’t surprised to learn that the screenplay had been kicking around for close to a decade.
Scudder encounters a few memorable supporting characters along the way, including a homeless kid he bonds with in the library who becomes something close to his sidekick (it’s never as cheesy as that might sound) and a weird cemetery caretaker who’s an aspiring novelist. The kidnappers/killers themselves are a seriously depraved pair, but Frank’s handling of them is effective in its subtlety. He manages to convey just how truly awful they are using brief snippets and occasional testimonies from other characters, never resorting to gratuitous scenes of extreme violence the story could have contained.
A Walk Among the Tombstones has a few issues, all it’s female characters are victims, and it could do with a little tightening up. Frank adopts a seriously misjudged technique during the finale, in which the shots continually freeze while a voice-over reads out the stages of the 12-step program. Not only is it needless, it actually proved very distracting for me, taking me out of the story as I realised I never knew how overtly religious the 12-step program is. Overall though, it’s a very solid detective story, an atmospherically tense thriller, with a compelling enough protagonist for Neeson to build on his new reputation.