This is the perfect time for A Walk Among the Tombstones. It doesn’t have the wattage for the Summer, nor the pedigree for the Fall, but it has enough to help make the lull between prime seasons bearable. It’s capable. It’s interesting. It’s familiar in the way many good thrillers are. And it features Liam Neeson, an actor who somehow has managed to exceed even the most naive predictions for Hollywood endurance doing what he does best. People who have bought the Taken hype feel that he’s served as an asskicker but the reality is that Liam Neeson is a rock whose physicality sells the belief that he can hold his own in a fight but it’s his calm authority that makes him special. Taken is a bonus but not Neeson’s wheelhouse. This is his wheelhouse, as was The Grey. You believe this man and are willing to go wherever he takes you.
Based on a dated but fantastic book in Lawrence Block’s “Matthew Scudder” series, A Walk Among the Tombstones showcases the actor as an alcoholic ex-cop who makes ends meet by doing ‘favors’ for people. He’s a private eye but not in the typical genre sense. The film subverts expectations whenever it can, choosing a film noir approach when possible and treating its leading man like a hero in a Western. He’s a man of a code, but one whose guilt hangs over him like a cloud. It’s a good role for Neeson, especially considering he’s the only name in the cast. He owns it, and since his character is a shade of gray helping out people who in a typical thriller would be the villain it’s a nice mix.
Men are abducting women and doing horrible things to them and still collecting the ransom. Since they’re preying on drug dealers the law isn’t a factor. Scudder is that buffer and though he’s a moral man there are times where his actions betray the typical action hero template. It’s when Scudder takes charge that the movie finds its legs. Relying on his voice and a surprisingly good American accent, Neeson carries the film admirably and Scott Frank is right at home with the material. The director takes his time and never falls in love with a scene too much to make the film feel too overt. Though there’s a freeze frame heavy segment in the film’s third act the style never rules. It’s the kind of film that used to exist all through the cinema year but has made its way to the small screen so what may have felt too common in the mid 90’s is a charming alternative today.
Jumping the era of the novel ahead to the end of the millenium the film gets some mileage from the Y2K threat and the spectre of what was to happen to New York in 2001. It works wonders and keeps what is a rather subdued film from being too disposable. Ray Harbour, one of television’s best character actors, elevates the villain character into something interesting and makes for a great foil and in the film’s rather drastically changed finale [the book’s ending made Scudder a bit of a bystander] there’s a nice layer of frightening coldness that feels right at home in today’s much more complex genre market.
It’s a good meaty little movie that they simply don’t make anymore and with Neeson and Scott Frank [who wrote the classic Out of Sight] it’s just what the doctor ordered in this humdrum part of the year.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars