Review: A Walk Among The Tombstones
PLOT: Retired detective Matthew Scudder, working as an unlicensed P.I., is confronted with true evil when he takes on the case of discovering who kidnapped and killed a drug dealer's wife.
REVIEW: There's just something about Liam Neeson calmly laying down the law to someone on the other end of a phone that is enthralling to watch, isn't there? Though A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is not just another spin on Neeson's newfound TAKEN persona, fans of the man in action-hero mode will be happy to know there is indeed a sequence in the movie where Neeson, on the phone, tells the villain exactly what he's going to do and how he's going to do it. He doesn't break a sweat, as per usual, and speaks with that "angry father" monotone that chills even the cockiest of bad guys. If you didn't know what you were doing was going to have consequences before, you sure as shit do now.
The main character in TOMBSTONES is Matthew Scudder, the New York-based protagonist of over a dozen books by Lawrence Block. Scudder seems tailor-made for Neeson, as he's a seen-it-all veteran of humanity's worst, an unlicensed private eye just scraping by and haunted by memories of his days as a detective. (One particular death at his own hands is constantly on his mind.) Scudder isn't legally allowed to practice his trade, so he has a system worked out: he does "favors" for friends or acquaintances, and they give him "gifts" in return. This allows him to stay busy and edge along the precipice of the law. His latest case is a tricky one: The wife of a rich drug dealer named Kenny (Dan Stevens) has been kidnapped and killed; brutally slaughtered even after he paid off the thugs who took her. Kenny wants Scudder to find them and deliver them, which is essentially asking a pretty big "favor" of the ex-cop, who knows he'd be acting as an accomplice to murder.
Naturally, Scudder takes on the job (the details of the poor woman's murder certainly help), and thus begins a thorough investigation in New York's less-scenic areas; the bodegas, cemeteries and tenements of the city are the setting for this tale, showing us a side of it rarely seen. The more Scudder digs, the more he discovers a troubling similarity between the taking of Kenny's wife and an ongoing series of kidnappings, all connected to drug dealers. It would seem as though somebody is out there picking the perfect targets, criminals who have a lot of money and won't dare go to the police. But it's more than simple extortion; this person (or persons) never intends to return the victim, and each one is hideously murdered.
Writer-director Scott Frank builds considerable intrigue and tension as Scudder comes closer and closer to the truth; the film has the careful pace of a police procedural, but with Neeson as its stoic center and the grittier areas of New York as its background, it achieves a propulsive drama not usually seen in your average private detective story. That's not to say Frank, with Block's book as his guide, doesn't enjoy delving into the genre's grimier side; there are shocking explosions of violence and terror carefully placed throughout, so just when you think TOMBSTONES has settled into a steady rhythm it punches you in the gut with something terribly upsetting. The villains in this movie are bad, like "horror movie" bad, and Frank gets a lot of mileage out of revealing them in glimpses early on and then fully immersing us in their world. Their MO is not necessarily new - they seem less about the money and more about the torture and terror - but Frank's stylistic touches to their scenes add a considerable element of danger to the film.
Complaints are minimal. The film runs a bit on the long side, with maybe one climax too many. (Thinking of horror movies again: TOMBSTONES has a "wait, he's not really dead!" moment or two up its sleeve.) The inclusion of the Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step mantra during a climactic showdown - Scudder is a recovering alcoholic - seems rather heavy-handed for a movie that is otherwise refreshingly straightforward. And a subplot involving a streetwise orphan (Brian "Astro" Bradley) who eventually comes to help Scudder brings some levity to the proceedings, but often feels more like a distraction; there's no doubt that the movie needs to alleviate its dark tone every now and again, but Frank would have done well to keep these scenes to a minimum. The kid is pretty good, however.
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is hard-hitting, old-fashioned detective noir, something we're not used to seeing enough of these days. Neeson is the man, we all knew that, but it's heartening to see him ply his trade in a story worthy of his talents. I'm not going to say that TOMBSTONES is TAKEN for adults, but let's just say it is indeed a movie made for adults.
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