A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014) / Thriller-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Brian "Astro" Bradley, Eric Nelsen, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson, Boyd Holbrook
Director: Scott Frank
Screenplay: Scott Frank (based on the novel by Lawrence Block)
Review published September 19, 2014
Set in the 1990s (for reasons that seem murky), Liam Neeson (A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Lego Movie) stars as Matt Scudder, a retired NYPD detective with a checkered past who now works as an unlicensed private dick who specializes in cases the legit tecs dare not touch. Scudder is hired by a wealthy drug trafficker (Stevens, The Fifth Estate) to find the men who kidnapped and viciously killed his wife, even after paying the ransom. Scudder's investigation leads him to the realization that this wasn't the first time they've committed this act, and it likely isn't the last if he can't crack the case.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is an adaptation of the 1992 Lawrence Block bestselling novel, the tenth of seventeen featuring main character Matt Scudder, by writer-director Scott Frank (The Lookout). It's not the first featuring the under-the-table detective; 8 Million Ways to Die got there first, to little success, in 1986. It's an old-school procedural with a more modern serial-killer bent, with lots of gruesome sensationalism and sadistic violence.
The film feels very much like the kind of violent action fare you might see someone like Charles Bronson or Burt Reynolds star in during the 1980s -- 10 to Midnight, Sharky's Machine, The Evil That Men Do, Stick. It's full of bizarre characters living almost zombie-like in a world that's barely recognizable as the real world the rest of us live in. That's not really a quality that works in its favor. Every prominent character feels like they are over-idealized, to the point where we can't see them as anything more than colorful caricature, and we lose any feel for the humanity that Frank appears to strive for in the flaccid attempts to muster up some philosophical or emotional depth.
The acting is spotty. Neeson has done so many thrillers, he knows the drill through and through and delivers the take-no-crap persona you'd expect. There's also a nice supporting turn for young Brian "Astro" Bradley (Earth to Echo) as TJ, a homeless kid who fancies himself a budding private eye in the mold of Spade and Marlowe. But most other performances feel like placeholders, most notably in "Downton Abbey"'s Dan Stevens, who couldn't possibly look less anguished or distraught for someone who has just been given grisly evidence that his beloved wife has been butchered savagely despite his efforts to save her.
Narratively confusing and structurally unwieldy, Frank's hardboiled detective film isn't exactly unwatchable, but it's also not particularly compelling. It's definitely seedy, alright, but these seeds bear little fruit by the long-in-coming bloody conclusion.
©2014 Vince Leo