A Walk Among the Tombstones Directed by: Scott Frank Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Eric Nielsen, David Harbour, Brian Astro Bradley Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins Rating: R Release Date: September 19, 2014
PLOT: An ex-cop (Neeson) investigates the kidnap and murder of a drug dealer's (Stevens) wife.
WHO'S IT FOR? Even Neeson fans will wish they had skipped this one.
It is uncertain who or what sliced up and scattered the potential of A Walk Among the Tombstones. Was it writer/director Scott Frank, who's written some good scripts in his time (Out of Sight, for one), but also has a slim and shabby directorial filmography? Or maybe it was one or some of the higher powers that be, the slew of producers (including Danny DeVito) that steered Frank’s passion project too much towards the inherited conceits of casting Liam Neeson? The mystery, however, is unimportant. Whoever did not do it, wasn't doing a good job either.
A Walk Among the Tombstones begins with a disjointed bang. In an early 1990s New York City, a scraggly and boozed-up cop named Matthew Scudder (Neeson) shoots back at a group of bar-robbers while dozed on whiskey, killing some thugs and scattering bullets everywhere (we learn later that one of his bullets “jumped” and killed a child). The story then jumps to 1999, where a world relying more on technology is anxious about their computers soon having to deal with the number “2000.” Scudder is now a retired cop, loner, and member of Alcoholics Anonymous who makes his keep doing dirty deals for underground folk who trust an ex-police with their errands. He is confronted by a fellow member of AA named Howie (Eric Nielsen), who knows what kind of secret business Matthew is in, and thinks he can help his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens, who shines brighter in this week’s The Guest).
Scudder reluctantly meets with Kenny, but listens to his tragic recollection of how his wife was kidnapped and murdered. While he instantly pegs Kenny for a drug dealer, Matthew nonetheless accepts the mission, and begins to snoop around the city. His investigations lead to a series of kidnappings/murders that have affected members of the NYC drug biz. While researching past victims through a microfilm gizmo at the library, Matthew befriends a whip-smart orphan named TJ (played with impossible sass by Brian “Astro” Bradley), who bounds in and out of his life.
Its story not to be confused with a murder mystery, A Walk Among the Tombstones reveals its monsters fairly early once Scudder’s snooping heats up, albeit through insert moments that are not from the perspectives of investigating characters. Whether the film is mostly meant to wallow with the pain of crooks experiencing grotesque and hyperbolic karma, A Walk Among the Tombstones clarifies its narrative intent fairly quickly, in spite of what its whimsical score and interrogative Neeson may nudge. Well by its third-act, as the viewer is coated in its bleak atmosphere, all hopes of density are streamlined to a ransom segment. It involves a young girl, one whose specific presence of the film shoehorns a safety net as to where the story will end up.
Regardless as to who is to blame for producer-y elements like Scudder's snappy young sidekick or a drawn-out showdown, A Walk Among the Tombstones’ is defined by poetic and aesthetic choices that simply do not work. The pre-Y2K anxieties within its 1999 setting provide a wan framing device for its period cynicism. Similarly, a subplot involving Scudder's involvement in AA seems more geared to repeat Neeson's star imagery (having played an alcoholic as well in Non-Stop, from the same studio). When the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps are recited over bursts of bang-bang-bang, it's only distracting white noise for an already cluttered moment.
While it yearns for punchy violence among contemporary noir, the aesthetics of Frank's film are inefficiently dour, with wide exterior shots of buildings often providing its most striking visuals. Book-ending action sequences are cut with sad sloppiness, and only happenstance is expressed when Frank uses an abrupt freeze frame amidst a key action moment; one’s heart does not jump because of any tension in this scene, but of fear that ye olde untrusty digital projector had failed again.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is spearheaded by a desaturated Neeson, who carries the pistol, pops his pea coat collar, and plays angry telephone with the finesse that has now become plain of him. With its star only able to get people in seats, Frank's successfully unpleasant film meanders with scant point or purpose.
FINAL SCORE: 3/10