After appearing in prestigious films like The Mission, Excalibur, and Schindler’s List, Liam Neeson has completely reinvented himself as an action hero. That he did it at an age when most actors in that genre are past their prime makes it more of an accomplishment. Starting with Taken in 2008, he took his 6’4” frame and honed it into an imposing physical presence, and then built on it with the Taken sequel as well as Non-Stop, The A-Team, and The Grey. While they’ve been financially successful, no one would confuse them with the artistic power of his earlier work. Now he has a chance to take his action persona in a literary direction with A Walk Among the Tombstones.
The movie is adapted from a book by 4-time Edgar Award winner Lawrence Block, part of a series that follows former NYPD detective Matthew Scudder. There are now about a dozen and a half books in that series. That’s an impressive number, until you know that Block, a Grand Master and former president of the Mystery Writers of America, has written “in excess (oh, wretched excess!) of 100 books” as it says on his website. There was one previous appearance by Scudder on the silver screen, in 1986’s 8 Million Ways to Die. The film had Jeff Bridges playing Scudder and was directed by Hal Ashby (Bound for Glory, Being There) from a script by (pre-Platoon) Oliver Stone and Robert Towne (Chinatown). Even with all that talent, the movie was a failure; it’s been said they forgot about Block’s book and made up the script as they went along.
That doesn’t happen this time. Tombstones was adapted and directed by Scott Frank, who wrote the screenplays for the Elmore Leonard books Get Shorty and Out Of Sight. As a director, Frank made the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt crime-drama The Lookout, working from his original screenplay. Frank stays true to Block’s book, so much so you can almost feel the pages turning as you watch the film.
Scudder (Neeson) left the NYPD in 1991 after he was involved in a shootout while half-drunk. The movie jumps forward to 1999, with Scudder receiving his 8 years clean coin at an AA meeting. Scudder makes his way as an unlicensed investigator – “I do favors for people and they give me gifts,” is the way he explains his work. Albert (Adam David Thompson), a junkie artist who met Scudder at an art show, asks him to help his brother, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), whose wife was kidnapped and then murdered in spite of Kenny paying the ransom. Scudder realizes Kenny is a drug dealer and at first refuses to take the job. Kenny, though, eventually convinces Scudder to look into the case.
Scudder discovers that Kenny’s wife wasn’t the first victim. Two psychotic and sadistic killers have found the perfect people to prey upon – the loved ones of drug dealers. Scudder is helped by T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless teen who basically lives at the public library. As he draws closer to the killers, Scudder doesn’t know they have already set their sights on their next victim, the daughter of a Russian trafficker.
Neeson wears Scudder like an old but beloved coat. After years of listening to his familiar voice, it may be strange to hear the New York accent Neeson uses in the role, but he does it so well you soon accept it. Those familiar with “Downton Abbey” may feel the same way about Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley on the show. He’s very effective in the role of Kenny, presenting a tightly controlled exterior but giving glimpses of the roiling emotions and devastation just below the surface. Rapper Astro embodies T.J. beautifully, with a confidence that belies his limited acting experience. Icelandic actor Olafur Darri Olaffson has a small but memorable role as James Loogan, a worker at a cemetery where an earlier victim was found who might know more about what happened that he told the police.
The cinematography reflects the movie’s feel – dark, with bleached-out color, where the only brightness is in the graffiti forecasting doom with the coming Y2K crash. It’s reminiscent of the gritty New York City police thrillers of the 1970s such as The French Connection and The Seven-Ups.
This isn’t a cozy mystery – if anything it’s past Hard-boiled on the scale of Miss Marple to Silence of the Lambs. But if you enjoy that style of mystery, then you’ll appreciate taking A Walk Among the Tombstones.