'A Walk Among the Tombstones': Film Review

Neeson adds another notch to his late-career action movie roles with this would-be franchise starter

Liam Neeson plays unlicensed private investigator Matt Scudder in this adaptation of one of Lawrence Block's best-selling mystery novels

It’s not for nothing that the names of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are reverentially referenced in writer-director Scott Frank’s adaptation of the 10th novel in Lawrence Block’s long-running, best-selling series featuring unlicensed private eye Matthew Scudder. Distinctly and proudly old-fashioned in its retro, film noir vibe, A Walk Among the Tombstones is notable for its dark atmospherics and strong performance by Liam Neeson in the latest example of his unlikely late career transformation into an action hero. Less impressive in terms of plotting and characterizations, the film should have a strong box-office opening, but its relentlessly downbeat tone and relative lack of violent pyrotechnics may prevent it from launching a franchise.

Scudder, who first appeared in print way back in 1976’s The Sins of the Fathers, is a terrific character that Neeson — whose casting the character's creator heartily approved — expertly embodies with his usual physically commanding presence and world-weary gravitas. The film’s tense 1991-set opening scene efficiently provides the character’s backstory as an alcoholic NYC cop who gave up the booze and the badge when his shootout with some bad guys on the streets of New York City went tragically awry. Cut to 1999, when he’s working as an unlicensed private investigator who explains that “I do favors for people… in return they give me gifts.”

Enlisted by fellow AA meeting attendee and drug addict Peter (Boyd Holbrook), Scudder reluctantly takes a case involving Peter’s prosperous drug-dealing brother Kenny (Dan Stevens, in a sharp departure from his heartthrob role in Downton Abbey), whose wife was kidnapped and returned dead despite his having paid a $400,000 ransom. Kenny demands that Scudder find the culprits and bring them to him for retribution that clearly doesn’t involve the legal system.

After the discovery of another female victim, this time left in pieces in trash bags in a park in Brooklyn’s historic Greenwood Cemetery, the trail eventually leads to a pair of serial killers (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) who target criminals so as to avoid their getting the authorities involved. After discovering their identity from the cemetery’s groundskeeper (a very creepy Olafur Darri Olafsson), Scudder pursues the sociopathic duo with the unlikely help of TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless black teenager who aspires to being a gumshoe himself.

Things come to a head after the kidnapping of the young daughter of a Russian drug dealer (Sebastian Roche), with Scudder getting directly involved in the ensuing negotiations which include the sort of tense, Taken-style taunting phone calls with the killers that Neeson could by now perform in his sleep. The film’s final act, featuring violent set pieces in a basement and the spooky nighttime environs of the cemetery, ratchets up the action considerably.

At one point Scudder explains to his young apprentice that the main attribute a private eye must possess is a “strong bladder.” Viewers may need one as well to get through the film’s dull middle section, filled with long, talky patches in which nothing much really happens. The compensation is that Neeson’s emotionally reticent hero is consistently engaging and refreshingly vulnerable, preferring to talk his way out of tense situations and for the most part not even carrying a gun.

Director Frank (The Lookout), whose screenwriting credits include Out of Sight, clearly has an affinity for the material, investing the proceedings with a darkly compelling atmosphere that recalls the best noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s. The film benefits greatly from having been shot in various seedy NYC neighborhoods — not to mention the spooky gothic cemetery that inspires the title — with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (The Master) delivering a desaturated color palette accentuating the overall gloominess.

At times the convoluted plotting proves too baroque for its own good, and the subplot involving Scudder’s mentoring of the sassy teen, who we eventually learn suffers from sickle-cell anemia, is both silly and distracting. Setting the action in the year 1999 adds little to the story other than to accentuate Scudder’s Luddite tendencies, with the impending threat of Y2K providing the opportunity for one of the villains to ironically observe, “People are afraid of all the wrong things.” The climactic shootout is marred by a too-fussy staging employing freeze frames and a juxtaposition of the tenants of the 12-Step program.

If the film does launch a series, there’s plenty of material to draw from, with some 16 other novels (including Eight Million Ways to Die, adapted into a 1986 film) and a short-story collection published to date. It sure beats the prospect of seeing Neeson once again exploiting his “special skills” in the upcoming Taken 3.

Production: Jersey Films, Double Feature Films, Cross Creek Productions, Exclusive Media, Endgame Entertainment
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian “Astro Bradley, Sebastian Roche, Mark Consuelos, Olafur Darri Olafsson
Director-screenwriter: Scott Frank
Producers: Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Tobin Armbrust, Brian Oliver
Executive producers: Kerry Orent, Adi Shankar, Tracy Krohn, John Hyde, Mark Mallouk, Lauren Selig, Nigel Sinclair, Richard Toussaint, Spencer Silna, Kate Bacon, Guy East
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Production designer: David Brisbin
Costume designer: Betsy Heimann
Editor: Jill Savitt
Composer: Carlos Rafael Rivera

Rated R, 114 minutes