A Walk Among The Tombstones Review
In August and September, if you find a good movie coming out, then you have to talk about it. I realize this movie is based on a book from the ‘80’s, but I get the impression that the thinking behind this movie was, “What if the guy from Taken didn’t give a shit?” Well, if that was the goal of Scott Frank’s A Walk Among The Tombstones, then he not only succeeded, he made a more interesting film than Taken.
The basic premise of the movie is that Liam Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former NYPD detective who left the force in 1991 after he had a violent altercation with several gangsters while drunk, which ended with the accidental death of a young child in the crossfire. The year is now 1999, and Neeson has sobered up and is working as a private detective when another person from his Alcoholics Anonymous group approaches him with an offer. The guy’s brother wants Neeson to find two killers who kidnapped his wife, ransomed her, and then killed her anyway. As Neeson follows leads and finds clues, he discovers that this has happened before and he will likely be forced into a violent confrontation with the criminals who’s respect for human life is virtually non-existent.
If this plot line sounds familiar, that’s because it is. This plot is fairly well known and is bordering on cliché by this point, which is not a point in this film’s favor. In addition to the lack of surprises in the plot structure, there is also no mystery as to who the villains are because the movie shows both of them very clearly very early on in the film. Both of these points add up to making the plot of the film feel very perfunctory, and is just going through the motions because it’s what is expected from this kind of film. As such, with a few exceptions, the first hour of this movie is REALLY slow, and might be difficult to enjoy if you don’t like the things in the film that I did.
Since the plot is nothing special and the villains’ identities are revealed early, all of the entertainment from this movie comes from the execution of its elements: the characters and the acting. Luckily, all of these elements are great. Neeson is far more compelling here than he ever was in Taken because he’s playing a flawed and far more human character. He’s still a capable badass, but he can get hurt and actually struggles against the villains, upping the drama. Also, even though he isn’t drinking anymore, he’s still kind of a disinterested dick. To quote my friend Jimmy, “He looked around his house, under his bed, and in his closet, but couldn’t find any fucks to give.” He doesn’t care if the killers are killed for vengeance or brought to justice. He wants to save the little girl, who gets kidnapped, but he freely tells her parents, “Look, she’s probably already dead, but if not, then I can help.” He’s so much fun to watch, and seeing drunken Neeson skip down a staircase after shooting a gangster in the leg and watching him fall down the stairs is something I will always fondly remember.
The same characterization pluses apply to the rest of the cast. The guy who hires Neeson is a drug dealer, but he’s written to have such human, relatable traits in the face of the evil of the villains, and the actor who plays him (Dan Stevens) provides the most pained, human performance of the minor cast. Further, the villains are so memorably despicable and lacking care for human life that they are both capable and memorably awful. David Harbour plays the smart ass psychopath Ray, who has plenty of violent, cruel lines to drive home how evil he is. His partner Albert is played by Adam David Thompson, who is the quiet one, which means he’s worse. As much as I like the entire cast, no one was as memorable as Neeson’s young sidekick T.J., played by Brian “Astro” Bradley (seriously). Even if the fact that a significant subplot of this movie makes me remember Cop and a Half, this is far better than that trope makes you think it should be. Astro’s T.J. is a fully realized character with a tragic back-story who never feels like a victim or an incapable idiot, despite his handicap (won’t spoil it). Also, he has some of the greatest lines in the movie, including the line which I’m giving the award for strangest line in a movie this year: “Girl I know you want to give me your white girl sodas.” Astro and Neeson have great on screen camaraderie and well-written plot interactions.
A further element of good execution is that, even though there isn’t much violence in this movie, when there is, it’s really good. It’s quick, brutal, and gritty, and because the sound design for this movie is so good, you will feel and hear every single gunshot or bone-crushing blow. With all of this said, I’m not sure whether to give credit for the stuff in this movie I did like to the writer of the original story, Lawrence Block, who apparently wrote a number of trashy hardboiled books in the 70’s, or to Scott Frank who directed adapted the story for the screen. While some of the subplot stuff is interesting, the story is largely played out and dull and is only held up by good acting, dialogue, and execution of the elements via good directing, As such, I’m likely to give far more credit to Scott Frank, and considering he’s been the screenplay writer for films like Out of Sight, Minority Report, and The Wolverine, that seems appropriate. One final note on Scott Frank’s direction, there are some truly gruesome moments that are as effective as they are because they don’t show everything. Let me put it like this. The killers like grocery bags. You don’t want to open their grocery bags.
This film reminds me a lot of a film I saw last year at this time of year, Prisoners. Both of these films had very clichéd plots with few surprises that were made entertaining by good dialogue and direction and gritty execution. Neeson’s great in this. The rest of the cast are great in this. The violence is brutal and well shot with great sound design to give it punch. In September, you take what good films you can get, and I definitely think this is worth seeing.
This movie is a mix of dull concept and great execution. The plot is cliche, it has few surprises, and it has a long slow beginning. However, Liam Neeson gives a great performance in a somewhat different role, and he's supported by a great cast with gritty direction and some effective brutality and gore. A Walk Among The Tombstones is a good movie, but not a great movie.