(see Liam Neeson threaten more people!)
A Walk Among the Tombstones isn’t the first time I’ve had the chance to observe, critique, and celebrate Liam Neeson’s second life in cinema as an action star (see Non-Stop). It won’t be the last, either (see Taken 3). It doesn’t matter which film the imposing Irish actor stars in these days, it will undoubtedly be compared to, and its box office receipts still depending on, the popularity of 2009’s Taken. Neeson as a bad ass, to any degree, will spark endless amounts of “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want” and “certain set of skills” quotes around the workplace and dinner tables (maybe a few “Now’s not the time for dick measuring, Stuart!”). But in the new drama thriller, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Neeson is able to add layers to his usual badassery — the character Matthew Scudder is more like Sam Spade than Bryan Mills (from Taken). The film is based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, and its a callback to the movie detectives of the 1940s and 1950s. It’s a dark film that plods along the crime thriller genre path, invoking many crime thriller cliches and plot turns, but produces just enough menace, style, and disturbing characters to keep our attention.
Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, a former NYPD cop who’s hired by a drug dealer (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) to track down those responsible for kidnapping his wife. Of course, any mentioning of an ex cop or officer of any kind in an action or crime movie indicates that measures will be taken outside the law. And, whaddya know! It wouldn’t be much fun to watch people NOT take the law into their own hands, anyway. Directed by Scott Frank, who directed the under-appreciated The Lookout and has penned some other excellent noir crime films such as Minority Report and Out of Sight, has a good grasp of the material and manages to throw in some incredible Hitchcockian moments as well as some subtle commentary on 1999’s Y2K moment in history.
Where A Walk Among the Tombstones occasionally stumbles is in the performances of the side characters and the reliance on expected cliches and plot turns. Nothing comes as a surprise in the film, but one moment in particular in the final act really got on the audience’s nerves. It’s one of those moments when you ask aloud, ‘wait, WHY is he THERE!?’ Basically, it’s apparent that the writers couldn’t find another way to get from A to B. There are also a few single scene side characters that robotically deliver their lines, not to say the lines were gems to begin with, but a little more effort would have gone a long way. Otherwise, the supporting actors led by Dan Stevens and including David Harbour (Revolutionary Road, End of Watch) and Boyd Holbrook (Milk, Out of the Furnace) do excellent work embodying classic archetypes.
To circle back to Neeson, one of the primary reasons A Walk Among the Tombstones succeeds is due to Neeson’s strength as an actor. He doesn’t bring the same suave machismo that Bogart brought to the table — women won’t swoon as Neeson threatens a bad guy — but Neeson still demands your attention and commands the screen. It’s easy to forget that he had quite an illustrious film career spanning multiple genres (and decades) prior to starring in Taken, so those disappointed that he’s not punching every man in sight in A Walk Among Tombstones probably don’t appreciate Neeson for the gifted actor that he is and the subtleties he brings to this new character. However, we’ll have to wait and see if Neeson can still tackle the soft and cuddly Love Actually roles of his past. Somehow, I feel that lines like “I push one button and 38 agents are here before you have time to scratch your worthless balls” won’t be involved.
A Walk Among the Tombstones opens in Bay Area theaters Friday, September 19th.