A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES Review

At this point it's a matter of just how much of a badass Liam Neeson can be. As I said in my review for this years Neeson opener, Non-Stop, the guy has more than solidified himself as everyone's favorite action star by doing what Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger wish they could at his age and reaping the box office returns they desire. Why these aged action stars can't catch a break is probably because everyone saw them in their prime, knew what they were at the peak of their careers and lives and find it somewhat disheartening and sad, the reality of time. We never saw Neeson as a young action hero though, it took time for him to transcend the realms of serious and prestigious works to lighten up a little and deliver consistently in the B-movie genre, but that is likely a discussion for another time and another piece. Today, we talk about Neeson's latest turn as the man on the other end of the phone in A Walk Among the Tombstones. I had a strange idea of this film from the time the first trailer premiered and had yet to rectify that by the time it came time to sit down and enjoy the film. Knowing very little to nothing about the plot or types of characters involved I imagined it as a western (c'mon, that's a great title for a western) and from the few stills I'd seen hoped Neeson might be playing the scorned Sheriff who has to show the townspeople he still has what it takes or the outlaw with a moral compass that put him in a sticky predicament where he had to choose between his code and his life. That is neither here nor there though as what the film actually plays out to be is a detective story from the perspective of a retired police officer and now private detective that was once unable to resist the temptation of the drink and is now unable to resist a case where women have become the price paid for their husbands sins. It is a nasty little movie, one that doesn't break any molds or provide any new insight into the genre of film in which it resides, but it does what it is intended to do well enough while going on for fifteen minutes too long and resulting in a much less profound conclusion than it could have had it simply let the audience draw their own conclusions.

P.I. Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) listens to TJ's (Brian Bradley) thoughts on meat and soda.
We meet Matt Scudder (Neeson) in 1991 with his long hair, goatee and trenchcoat as he takes a seat at a bar to read the morning paper. The bartender brings him a nice cup of coffee with two shots to go along with it. This opening scene hits you as a few guys bust into the bar, argue with the bartender and shoot him in the heart before realizing someone else is inside and take off. Scudder chases after them, gunning each of them down in careless fashion as cars screech to a halt and bystanders take cover. The only thing we come to take away from this event is that it was the day Scudder stopped drinking as the film then fast forwards eight years to 1999. The countdown is on to Y2K (a tool used so you won't ask as many questions), Scudder is still attending AA meetings while having retired from the force yet when a well-off drug dealer, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), approaches him about his missing wife he isn't able to turn the guy down on principle, but rather believes he has to help the woman on his "what is really the right thing to do" principle. Within this situation things escalate quickly, adding a line of questions and a rather large amount of players to the game, but this is what Scudder does and Neeson is here to embody him to prove to you how damn good he is at what he does. In the process of tracking down the two guys that were seen kidnapping Kristo's wife Scudder befriends a young homeless boy, TJ (Brian 'Astro' Bradley). This figure of ruined innocence becomes not only an associate of sorts, but the anchor of the film that gives Scudder something to go on living for, something to add meaning to the overall life of the protagonist we have taken to following. It is at one point a ploy and a kind of scape goat to make sure the audience actually likes Scudder, but it almost feels unnecessary as without TJ the film could have found that more profound route to travel while the subplots saving grace is the chemistry Neeson and Bradley exude on screen.

What struck me about the film though was not the restrained procedural nature the first half of the film embraces, but rather the way in which writer/director Scott Frank trusted his leading man with the material in a sense that he stayed with him and added little distraction to the main narrative despite all of the aforementioned secondary questions, plotlines and players coming into the fold. Frank has penned many a screenplay, but has only directed one feature film prior to this and it shows. Though I enjoyed his 2007 effort, The Lookout, I can't say I remember much about it except for the fact I liked it more than I expected to. What hinders his direction here is not the way in which he guides us through the story (though, as noted before, there is a little too much story included) or the kind of bleak, gray-palette of the cinematography that matches the intended tone really well, but it is in keeping with that tone that Frank finds his missteps; coming off as a director who has a plethora of tools at his disposal for the first time and wants to try them all out. In the end, the styles don't meld and the final product seems cheaper than it should. This is a shame, really, because the majority of the time A Walk Among the Tombstones has a lot of good things going for it. It will be discussed as a traditional genre movie in the categories of  action, crime and mystery, but it has a few unexpected elements that allow it to deviate from that traditional structure it sports. The main thing being that it never gives our two creeper bad guys (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) any kind of motivation beyond that of a few vague possibilities. At first I imagined they would eventually come to reveal some kind of scorned history with some organization that forced them to go on these sick kidnapping and torture excursions with these specific victims, but one of the strengths of the second half of the film is that it follows these antagonists closer, profiling them without ever humanizing them and not so we don't feel anything for them, but so that sense of mystery, that sense of eerie menace remains intact to the end.

Scudder is brought in to help rescue Yuri's (Sebastian Roche) daughter. 
Adapted from the novel by Lawrence Block (which is apparently part of a series, so if this does well look for Tombstones 2 in two years) there are sections of the story that will likely add up better with a second, more perspective viewing but there is also a lot of tightening that will need to be done if Frank is granted another shot at a second Scudder investigation. There was a moment, around the half-way point, where the pacing became painfully awkward and I consciously wondered if the film would find its groove. I can't say that I think it settled into a comfortable flow as I have the most issues with the drawn-out conclusion and multiple endings, but in Neeson the film has its greatest asset and it does the best things it can do with that asset as he smooths much of the disjointed nature from the scenario he's placed in. Both the title and the characterization with which Neeson portrays tell of a man who surrounds himself with death, a man both haunted by those he has killed and brought clarity by those he brings to justice (sometimes by killing them). It is a double-edged sword that Scudder can neither shake (as he does the alcohol) or always feel bad about as he knows, despite the rules of society, what he does is for the best interests of the circumstances that have been brought to him for service. Specifically, there is a section with a cemetery grounds keeper played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson in which Scudder is sniffing him out for information and Ólafsson's James is unable to either fool the seasoned detective or contain his excitement due to the fact he is an aspiring crime novelist. The interactions Neeson shares with James are precise, very direct and never skew towards typical interrogation dialogue, but rather they are refreshingly honest making them all the more severe. The way in which both actors dryly approach these scenes, never overplaying either of their characters obvious key traits, is a small glimpse into what is a very acute, disturbing short film. It is the moments I've mentioned as well as this one that make the film worth looking into, yet it is the non-coherent direction and assembly of these parts that won't allow it to rise above that traditional genre label.