Liam Neeson’s “I’ve been a badass all along” career renaissance continues in this gritty, grimy, and very hard-boiled detective yarn “A Walk Among The Tombstones”, based on the book of the same name in a popular series, written by Lawrence Block. We know what to expect by now; lots of mumbling, a lot more growling, lots of shooting and Liam Neeson acting invincible.
Yet far from being yet another action clone where Neeson kills everything, this is more “Taken: Slower, More Grown Up Edition”. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a surprisingly nuanced, generously paced film that wants us to get to know Neeson’s character, the retired cop Matt Scudder, who now does “favours” for people who give him “gifts” in return. There are in fact only three gun-fights and not a single car-chase, which is a good thing. The film is more of a wallow in the most lurid propensities of crime fiction than anything else, and it works very well as a piece of beautiful, stylized neo-noir.
It begins with a very effective prologue, set in 1991, in which we are introduced to Scudder. He’s in a bar, which gets held up by two thugs who then kill the bartender. He runs out and then pursues and shoots them. Written down, this sounds like your typical action movie prologue, but there’s something to it. Look at how director Scott Frank stages the holding up of the bar, with the screen split in two, Neeson foregrounded and the robbers smaller, in the background. Then look at Neeson’s little skip as he shoots the final person. Listen to the gunshots, purposely far more deafening than they usually are. A whole culture of violence is created in about two minutes.
We then skip forward to 1999. Neeson is retired, he lives alone. He is contacted by a man (Boyd Holbrook) who claims his brother’s wife has been kidnapped for a ransom. Neeson doesn’t want to know; “tell this to the FBI”. However, the man, Kenny Kristo (played by Dan Stevens, and looks a lot like Casey Affleck) is a drug dealer, and when he gave the ransom his wife was handed back in lots of tiny bags.
Interestingly, the film doesn’t explode as Neeson tracks down the bad guys. He’s reluctant, and doesn’t even take the job at first. We observe his relationship with a local homeless youth “TJ”. And then when he does take the job, he goes about it in the way that you or I might, in scenes of conversations with witnesses that recall the investigative rigor of something like “Chinatown”.
I won’t ruin the plot any more. I will talk about what the film does right. It creates a very vivid snapshot of late 90’s life (“Y2K” dominates the newspapers). There is a strong sense of place, and a hellish feel to the film. It’s shot magnificently, with fitting muddy greys and browns and a recurring, almost two dimensional tableaux shot pattern; credit to Mihai Malaimare JR., cinematographer. Neeson’s character is fully developed. Even the two killers are given time, and though we don’t understand them fully, we feel we’ve come to know them and their habits. The film doesn’t shy away from their brutality, and it gives this film an edge.
If you’re looking for an adult thriller, that recalls films like Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs, and doesn’t disgrace itself next to them, then this is for you. It’s a brave, occasionally visceral film with a lingering effect that stays with you; that’s impressive.
A Walk Among The Tombstones is in cinemas now.