Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

by Patrick Bromley
A Walk Among the Tombstones is Liam Neeson's best movie since The Grey. Would that he had more wolves to punch.

We've seen a lot of Liam-Neeson-as-badass movies in the last few years, ever since the surprise smash success of Taken reinvented the actor as an action star. In most cases, he's been the dependable center of films in which the concept takes center stage: His wife has no idea who he is! (Unknown) He has to solve a mystery on a plane 10,000 feet in the air! (Non-Stop) It's a sequel to Taken! (Taken, Too) A Walk Among the Tombstones is better than all of those because it takes the focus away from the "hook" and shifts it towards the characters, the dialogue and the story. It gives Neeson a real part to play -- a guy who is haunted and repentant, tough and determined but also sarcastic and funny (which he rarely, if ever, gets to be on screen). It's as much a character piece as it is a mystery, and it's a reminder of just why we love an actor like Neeson in this kind of material in the first place. The only other actor whose as good in roles like this is Denzel Washington -- who, incidentally, will be on screens just days from now playing a very similar part in The Equalizer.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, A Walk Among the Tombstones finds Liam Neeson playing his usual ass-kicking self as Matt Scudder, a former New York cop and recovering alcoholic who left the force after a tragic shooting and now works as an unlicensed private detective. He's hired by drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, currently seen being awesome in The Guest) to find the men responsible for kidnapping and killing his wife even after he paid the ransom money. The search for the truth sends Scudder down a path that includes more kidnappings, more hacked up bodies, the DEA and young boy named TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley, a rapper and reality show contestant who sometimes just goes by the name Astro). Eventually he gets to growl threats into the telephone. Liam Neeson gotta Liam Neeson.
It's no surprise that A Walk Among the Tombstones pays attention to things like dialogue and characterization, as it is adapted and directed by celebrated screenwriter Scott Frank, whose credits include Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Dead Again and Minority Report. This is only his second feature as a director (his first was the underrated 2007 thriller The Lookout), and it's empirical proof that the man needs to get behind the camera more. The opening sequence alone -- a flashback to Scudder's days as a drunk in 1991 that becomes a brutal shootout -- is better than a lot of the year's action set pieces. This is dark material and Frank isn't afraid to treat it thusly, from the violence to the patient solemnity of Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s camera to the oppressive atmosphere. I don't think the sun ever shines in the movie. It rains a lot. This is Scott Frank's take on a gritty '70s crime drama. Between Neeson's casting and that aesthetic, it reminded me of a Joe Carnahan film -- ironic, since Carnahan was set to direct the movie 10 years ago with Harrison Ford in the lead. Frank hasn't borrowed from Carnahan, merely interpreted the material in a similar way. It works.

Hollywood rarely makes movies like A Walk Among the Tombstones anymore: mid-budget (reported at $28 million) movies made for adults not reliant on a special effects, an existing IP or a high concept to sell it to as wide an audience as possible. It's just a solid crime film with good writing, confident direction and strong performances all around. Every movie should be at least as good as A Walk Among the Tombstones. Truly great movies should be better.
Because there are a few things holding the movie back from greatness. One is Frank's decision to set the film in 1999. I haven't read Lawrence Block's novel, but (and I'm speculating here) I don't imagine it was set in '99 seeing as how it was published in 1992. And I recognize the narrative needs for the choice, as there are a number of scenes dependent on the use of pay phones that would not work if everyone carried a cell phone (which some characters do). It might not have bothered me at all if the movie didn't stop on occasion to call attention to it, like when characters talk about Y2K or outline a plan to invest in one of those "internet startups." The reminders are unnecessary, each time jarring us out of what is otherwise a gripping story.

The second issue is a pretty major one, and I feel bad even pointing it out, but the relationship between Scudder and TJ is almost entirely terrible. It's not the actors' faults; they play their parts well and sell their scenes together (though some of TJ's hood-speak dialogue is cringe worthy, either because the movie is set in the '90s or because neither Frank nor Block have any idea how urban teens actually talk). It's just that rather than adding anything to the material -- which it doesn't -- it actively disrupts what is otherwise a compelling crime thriller. Scudder doesn't need to be softened by having a relationship with a sickly black teenager. His path to redemption is covered elsewhere (and that is a big part of what the movie is about -- pay attention to any time Scudder is on a set of stairs). Again, I haven't read the novel, but I have to assume TJ was a character and that's why he's been included here. Unfortunately, when he's not being an unnecessary distraction, he's there to purely serve the plot when it's convenient. I hate to say it, but the character should have been cut out of the script.
It's not enough to ruin the movie, however, which still manages to be a moody and effective crime drama that will most likely be forgotten by year's end. It's being dumped in September, typically a slow month at the movies (many of Neeson's movies seem to come out during the off-season). It's darker than his more crowd-pleasing films, less about thrills than about character and worldview. I suppose that's why it has already had a lower-grossing opening weekend ($13.1 million) than Taken 2 ($49 million), Unknown ($21.8) and Non-Stop ($28.9). This is why we can't have nice things.

I'm not worried. Time will be good to A Walk Among the Tombstones, a movie people will discover on cable years from now and wonder why they had never seen it. I would say that because it's already set 15 years in the past, it's not going to date. But that's not entirely true. It's not going to date because it's a good movie. Those never get old.


  1. Is it just me, or have there been a lot of moody, dark crime thrillers lately/this year? Life of Crime, The Drop, this, The Equalizer, God's Pocket, Out of the Furnace, Muppets Most Wanted... Is this the result of a trend of only violent, gritty movies scoring that increasingly rare mid-buget funding, or just a coincidental spike?

  2. Thats a great thought El. It would be nice to think the Hollywood movie people will one day realise that a time has to come when we still need to make these types of movies for adults. They can't keep blowing there wad on superhero movies. We all get sick of hearing the phrase "That movie wouldn't get made today" Why? Hopefully were gonna reach critical mass soon and on the downside start to fund different movies. That would be nice
    Heck I propose the only reason to make big budget superhero movies is to make lots of money for the film makers so they can spend it on smaller movies.
    Cheers for the review Patrick. It's nice to hear movies bring championed. I'm looking forward to seeing who Liam punches in this one.
    I really liked The Grey. I still have the scene at night with all the wolves eyes shining in my head. So spooky

    1. I liked Walk Among the Tombstones, since I love film noir, and no I don't agree that the T.J. character was unnecessary---he winds up providing a very crucial part of the plot in the last half-hour, and at a risk to his own life---his character's not there to make anyone feel good, anyway. Interestingly enough, the film was actually pretty big at the box office, which was surprising because it's wasn't a superhero or animated comedy flick or yet another sequel to yet another extended franchise. None of the '90's stuff was jarring to me simply because I remember the '90's, and that there was actually life before the internet and social media came up. I mainly saw this because of Neeson, whom I always liked in THE GREY and that recent thriller aboard an airplane that he did. Pretty good film for grown folks for a change,too.

  3. Great review Patrick - it's hard not to roll your eyes when you see another Liam Neeson "I'm Going to Hunt You Down and Kill You" movie, but glad this one stands above the rest - slow time for movies so I might actually go out for this one.

  4. Good review, Patrick. I interpreted some of the eye-rolling dialog as a nod to old private detective stories; the script stops just short of using terms like "coppers" and "private dick." Brian Bradley is a likeable actor -- he was one of the few highlights in this summer's Earth to Echo -- but I agree that his character is unnecessary. The female roles primarily serve as potential targets for the villains, and the violence toward women (all off-screen) is pretty horrific. It seems to be a plot device intended to raise the stakes, but is implemented with fairly broad strokes. Overall, I wish the script had been reworked with fewer clich├ęs and less dependence on writer's shorthand.

  5. Bad guys Lookout, You're gonna get Punched.

    Indulge me. I'm just practising my seven word reviews....

  6. I thought this movie was ok. Nothing special at least to me. After watching it, I was angry at all the trailers. All the cool twists were least they were in the trailers I had seen in coming attractions the previous weeks.
    Also, another problem I couldn't get past may not be something that everyone can relate to. Being a little more familiar with the AA culture than I wish, I thought the way they handled the parallel storytelling with AA and the plot was cheap. It seemed to me that someone watched a couple made for tv movies about the issue of substance abuse and tried to include it. Thought it was very surface level, superficial and uninformed.

    1. Side note: in contrast to what I said above, I am at episode 7 of the first season of The Wire...those dudes get a lot of things right.