From a distance, A Walk Among the Tombstones looks an awful lot like “generic Liam Neeson actioner #1,075”, but that’s only a half-accurate first impression. Oh, Neeson grumbles and sneers, dispassionate to the world around him and ambivalent about his mortality, a stereotypical hard-boiled badass; he’s seen it all, and he cares little about anything that doesn’t tie into the storm cloud of veiled ennui that hovers over him for the bulk of the movie. He also takes his morning coffee with two shots of whiskey, which is either a nod to his law enforcement background or his national heritage. (Maybe both.)
Here, though, Neeson is less the beater and more the beaten, trading in on his special set of skills to find out what it’s like to be on the other end of a bruising. We’re not in Bryan Mills’ house anymore; welcome to the world of Matthew Scudder, the grizzled protagonist in author Lawrence Block’s long-running series of grim, New York-set crime novels. You won’t see Neeson whip out any slick martial artistry or marksman tricks to wreak ruthless vengeance on a whole coterie of Euro thugs. You’ll instead see Neeson slip on a pool of blood, fall down some stairs, and make an ass of himself.
And it’s way more effective than it has any right to be. Part of the trick with A Walk Among the Tombstones lies with expectation; this is an investigative whodunit that’s willing to capitalize on Neeson’s oversold reputation as a late-stage tough guy for marketing purposes. The distinction is puzzling at best – showing up for a half-dozen action flicks in as many years doesn’t make you Sylvester Stallone (it doesn’t even make you Chuck Norris) – but don’t let the associations fool you. You’ll be happier for it, free to engage with the film on its own terms.
A Walk Among the Tombstones begins simply, as a detective yarn in which Scudder reluctantly tracks down the kidnapped wife of drug dealer Kenny (Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens). There’s a hitch, though: she’s already dead, Kenny tells us, and he wants the men responsible for killing her. We’re treated to a flashback sequence in which the particulars of her shanghaiing are detailed, and the film instantly adopts a newly macabre mien. It’s gross, maybe even super-gross, though it’s never terribly graphic. This flick mercifully favors suggestion over depiction. Somehow, that makes it more twisted; our brains have a way of giving off-screen mutilations a visual form, and there’s so much horrible crap that happens in A Walk Among the Tombstones that squeamish types might need a breather by the end of its first 30 minutes.
What a grisly delight, to have the second Liam Neeson film released in 2014 plumb such gruesome depths. As Scudder searches out the madmen behind the crime, he finds that they’ve been active for quite a while, and that they’re still plotting abductions and dismemberments. It’s a suitably nasty pastiche of genre tropes, anchored by the dulcet tones of Neeson’s trademarked growling baritone and a surprising performance from Earth to Echo‘s Brian “Astro” Bradley, here portraying Scudder’s streetwise, smartass assistant, TJ. He doesn’t have a lot to do other than give Scudder someone to bond with (and occasionally educate us on the racist history of soft drinks), but he’s good fun all the same.
Scott Frank directs the film with workmanlike brio; he makes a few odd artistic choices here and there (notably in randomly inserted freeze frames in its climactic shootout), but it’s a handsome effort nonetheless. Interestingly, he’s managed to make a movie that’s not only set in the 1990s but feels like it was made in the 1990s, which is more of a compliment than it sounds. A Walk Among the Tombstones feels like a po-faced knockoff of mid-decade fare like Se7en. There’s texture here, though the movie manages to avoid looking like a knock-off in spite of its derivations.
That’s almost as much of an accomplishment as being a stand-out entry in the annual September dumping ground. You’ve probably seen superior takes on similar material before, but between its spectacularly barbaric evocations and Neeson’s reliability as a leading man, A Walk Among the Tombstones has enough merit to be worth a watch.