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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » A Walk Among the Tombstones
A Walk Among the Tombstones
Universal // R // September 19, 2014
Review by Tyler Foster | posted September 19, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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Since 2008, Liam Neeson has become a household name with a string of thrillers that changed his public perception of him from Oskar Schindler to the new Harrison Ford, a man of many stern faces whose wife and daughter are constantly in peril. His modern persona is so pervasive it was the grounds for one of the best skits on "Key & Peele", even though the only other movie the duo's hyperactive valets had to talk about was the 25-year-old Darkman. Earlier this year, Neeson starred in Non-Stop, about a Federal Air Marshal being manipulated by a mysterious terrorist on board a lengthy international flight. It amped up the silliness far beyond even Luc Besson's usual M.O., but was more entertaining for it, reveling in its B-movie ridiculousness. Now, he's back with A Walk Among the Tombstones, which is being promoted like another one of those thrillers but heads to the other end of the spectrum, restoring a bit of dramatic weight to Neeson's Irish growl.

Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former police officer now running his own private investigation business. Scudder doesn't have a license, but he can certainly accept gifts from people who he decides to help. Today's potential philanthropist is Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a drug runner whose wife was found in the trunk of a car, and not all in one piece. He wants Matt's help to find the killers. At first, Matt is reluctant due to Kenny's line of work, but Kenny's honest emotional torment wins him over. Before long, Matt uncovers a string of killings, all targeting the wives of fellow drug traffickers and gangsters, although it takes some assistance from Matt's new friend TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley), an opinionated young boy who Matt first meets in a library where TJ has been caught sleeping at night.

Tombstones is based on a novel by Lawrence Block, and it often feels like a movie based on a novel. There's something so "thriller-novel-by-an-aging-white-dude" about a recovering alcoholic detective trying to solve a murder mystery who befriends a young streetwise black kid. Thankfully, the film was adapted and directed by one Scott Frank, who previously scripted Out of Sight for Steven Soderbergh, and made the decent 2007 thriller The Lookout with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Although the first half of the movie frequently feels like an underwhelming story executed with flair, the film eventually finds its footing as an old-fashioned detective story with colorful characters and a splash of a western thrown in for good measure, with Scudder decked out in a duster during the opening prologue. It's a gritty film punctuated by well-timed bursts of bitter humor from either Neeson or Bradley.

In terms of the performance, Neeson doesn't change his style much, but he has a strong handle on when to turn his charm on or off. He spits out Frank's sharper barbs with a nice acidity, only genuinely warming up when the boy is around. Bradley, on the other hand, kind of steals the show. The relationship between Matt and TJ stinks of cliche, but both actors are good enough with the material that it's easy to let it slide. Kristo is the opposite: Stevens can be a bit one-note (seething), but his character is kind of curious, a gangster never shown making gangster kinds of decisions, but mostly mourning his wife, and serving as a middleman when another mobster is targeted. David Harbour plays one of the mysterious kidnappers, and his smarm adds another layer of pitch-black humor to the situation. Olafur Darri Olafsson is also quite memorable as a cemetery groundskeeper.

Story-wise, one might frown on Tombstones as another "women-in-peril" story, but Frank mostly eludes this. The victims are women, but most of them are already in the past-tense by the time Scudder begins his investigation, and he has no personal connection to any of them (the fact that there aren't any living female characters of note is more egregious, but the first thought would probably have been a scene with Scudder's ex-wife, and that sounds terrible). Scudder is motivated by his own sense that the men who committed the crimes are evil, that they will not be deterred or stop unless someone goes out of their way to stop them. It's a bleak outlook, highlighted by the fatalistic Y2K imagery that surrounds Scudder (the film is a period piece, set in 1999), and Frank certainly dives into the darkness, in a creepy opening credit sequence that transforms itself as it goes on, and the brutality of the violence on hand. At times, the film creaks under the weight of its own tropes, but Neeson and Frank hold it together with a blunt force fitting the Scudder character and his world.


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