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Walk Among the Tombstones, A
As with any genre, there is a predictability to private detective stories that detractors cite as their reason for preferring other things but that fans tend to find comforting. The expectation of watching the detective stumble from one exposed lie to another, taking a beating or two along the way, falling two steps back for every step forward his investigation takes--this is why we go to a movie about a noble, nosy shamus.
The fact that the new film A Walk Among the Tombstones wears these virtues out in the open, and even goes so far as to call out famous detectives from movies and novels past, will be a salve to those missing the good ol' days of trench coats and sleuthing. Hell, Liam Neeson actually digs out a musty, bullet-riddled overcoat when it comes time for him to really go to work. At the same time, A Walk Among the Tombstones is hard-edged and dark in a more modern Clint Eastwood sense. Or I guess a Liam Neeson sense. There's already plenty of jokes on the internet about the scenes in A Walk Among the Tombstones where he coolly threatens kidnappers over the telephone. It's what Liam Neeson does best.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is written and directed by Scott Frank, the screenwriter on Out of Sight whose previous solo project was the underseen The Lookout. Here he is adapting Lawrence Block, whose Matt Scudder series of books has already been the inspiration for one previous film, 1986's 8 Million Ways to Die. Neeson takes over for Jeff Bridges this time around, playing the character long after the effects of a violent shootout and too much booze have caused him to quit the police force and the bottle both. Scudder now works as an unlicensed P.I. who sometimes does favors for people when they need help.
When a recovering junkie Scudder met in AA asks the former lawman to help out his brother, however, it turns out to be more than he bargained for. The brother, Kenny (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens), is a drug trafficker whose wife was kidnapped and killed, despite his having paid the ransom. Assuming it's connected to Kenny's business, Scudder refuses at first, but Kenny's emotional description of events sways him. Scudder decides to dig deeper. He uncovers other bodies he thinks are connected. This wasn't just a one-time thing.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is set in 1999, with Y2K and the potential loss of everything looming over everyone. Frank's aesthetic, though, is pure 1970s. Character is king and integral to the storytelling. You see that right from the opening sequence, a flashback to Scudder's bad day that audaciously ends with the film's title hanging in simple text over the protagonist's head. He will rule this story, commanding the audience's attention the same way he will command that of all those around him.
This, of course, is something that Neeson is more than capable of. His acceptance of his role as elder statesman amongst action stars is more than cemented here. He is quiet and reserved and not at all showy. In some scenes, his reputation amongst moviegoers for being the badass in Taken maybe allows him to get away with being a little too tough with too little effort, but the fact that Frank follows such posturing with a witty putdown smooths out any reservations one might have. The man that Scudder has just exposed asks what gave him away. "Everything," Scudder says, his voice dry and without inflection. "You're a weirdo."
Other shortcuts are maybe a little harder to forgive, as are maybe some other genre tropes. Scudder reveals at least one piece of information a tad too conveniently, the card having been held too close to the vest, if indeed we are to believe he held it at all. Likewise, the teen sidekick Scudder picks up (Astro, Earth to Echo) never evolves into more than a device there to serve the plot by disobeying his smarter mentor and being where he shouldn't.
Luckily, that kid disappears for time to time, and the other supporting players are generally pretty good, including a finely tuned sinister turn from The Newsroom's David Harbour. Frank paces the movie well, peppering in a few red herrings, but never being so obvious about them as to cause annoyance when they don't pan out. A Walk Among the Tombstones quickly becomes more about the why and the how than the who anyway, and the big climax has enough tension and a few added shocks to keep you on the edge of your seat even after the facts have been revealed.
In other words, Liam Neeson cleans up all the lies and takes his beatings just like he's supposed to, making A Walk Among the Tombstones a quite good private detective thriller with a fair amount of smarts and more than enough bite.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.