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.
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.
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.
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.