The opening moments of A Walk Among the Tombstones are, like much of the movie, quiet and contemplative. Liam Neeson, playing police officer Matt Scudder under layers of hair, walks into a bar (no, this isn’t a set-up for a joke). He sits by himself, away from the view of others, and gulps down hearty shots of liquor, when a couple of other guys walk into the bar. Following a shotgun blast, the bartender is dead, the two killers are on the run and Scudder, guns blazing, is running after them. It’s an electrifying way to open, but this isn’t an action movie.
We catch up with Scudder eight years later. It’s 1999 and he’s now a clean-shaven private detective. He’s just been hired by a grieving husband (played superbly by Dan Stevens) to track down his wife’s murderer. It seems a pair of serial killers have been abducting, torturing and mutilating women throughout New York. Scudder wants no part of it, until he listens to an audio recording of one of the victims being murdered. Suddenly, a sense of duty overtakes Scudder, who is eight years sober and seemingly fearless.
I love that Neeson has emerged as an unlikely but potent new action hero but, again, this isn’t that type of movie. Scudder is the kind of role Neeson might have played during his initial emergence as a great actor, when he did films like Schindler’s List and Michael Collins. His latest is too real-world, brooding and downbeat to be in the same category as pop fantasies like Taken and Non-Stop.
Yet, if there’s a consistency to Neeson’s type of screen hero, it’s how he fights against relatable, homegrown obstacles. Whether he’s saving his family (the Taken series), protecting an airliner (Non-Stop), retrieving his stolen identity (Unknown) or surviving the wild (The Grey), Neeson is always vulnerable, believable and compelling, in the same way Harrison Ford was in these kinds of movies.
A Walk Among the Tombstones should have been a slam dunk but its oddly unsatisfying. Director Scott Frank is best known as one of Hollywood’s top tier screenwriters. Having penned Minority Report and Dead Again, he’s a perfect choice for crafting a hard-boiled detective story.
The 1999 period details are uncannily precise: since Y2K fears were everywhere, we see billboards for Y2K preparedness and even a promo for the acclaimed Kevin Spacey revival of The Iceman Cometh on Broadway. Frank knows the look of this world, and his exceptionally strong supporting cast embodies the desperation and ruthlessness of this neo noir story. In addition to Stevens, there’s Olafur Darri Olafsson as a potential suspect and David Harbour as a monster with a fiendish smile. Both are unforgettable.
Despite the skill of the filmmaking and the cast, I was distracted by aspects of the story that didn’t add up. There’s also a subplot of a young boy who assists Scudder on his case: while these interludes are well played and not “cute,” they still belong in another movie.
Most of all, the film’s insistent darkness put me off. The thematically comparable Seven was a tighter mouse trap and kept its most horrible moments out of view. This one isn’t as fresh and shows us more of the killer’s truly sick behavior than necessary.
At one point, someone asks Scudder, “Why aren’t you scared?” We learn the character’s tragic secret and the reason for his unflappability but that quality makes Neeson’s performance appear somewhat disengaged. His character is as detached and cold as the film.