By Tressa Eckermann, Contributor
Much has been made about Liam Neeson’s turn into an action star in his early 60s. He already had an established career, received Oscar nominations and critical acclaim. His turn in “Taken” was surprising, but paid off. What most people don’t remember is that a lot of the films which followed weren’t as critically or financially successful: “The Grey” was absolutely stunning and brilliant, “Non-Stop” was silly fun and “Taken 2” was a disaster.
And now here’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” based on a smart, clever Lawrence Block book series, featuring a remorseful and complicated private investigator. The film is a dark, twisted and adult throw-back thriller.
Set in 1999 as the world was working itself into a frenzy about Y2K, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” has an odd tone to it. By no means is this a perfect film; some could accuse it of being a touch misogynistic, and some scenes are just off. Look for the slow-motion scene with a kidnapping victim set to a Donovan song. It’s perplexing because, even though it’s stylish and unsettling, it feels almost too cool. This is a gritty film and that moment stands out like a sore thumb.
The film begins in New York in 1991 with Neeson playing Detective Matt Scudder. He kills three robbers responsible for the murder of a bartender, but a civilian is killed in the process. Nine years later, he’s working as an unlicensed private detective who works for “gifts” given to him by his clients. He’s asked to look into the murder and kidnapping of the wife of drug dealer Kenny (Dan Stevens).
Stevens, last seen by American audiences as the dreamy Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” is a perfect fit in this role. Gone are the blonde hair and waistcoats, replaced by a twitchy attitude and jet black hair. My only regret for this film is that his character wasn’t explored more. This is especially true when you see Kenny and Scudder’s interactions towards the end of the film. Stevens and Neeson have an easy chemistry that should have been more greatly emphasized.
“A Walk Among the Tombstone’s” successes can be attributed to one major factor: Neeson. He is still one of the most magnetic and fascinating actors working today, and he gives this film all he’s got.
Everything great about this movie comes down to Neeson and his performance. He has that perfectly weathered face—worn down and full of regret. Scudder is sober, but you can tell he has a thin hold on that sobriety. He is kind to a young homeless boy he meets and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings religiously, but he’s bitter and honest about his past sins.
Even with the tonal issues, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is an exceptionally crafted thriller, evocative of those great 1970s Pakula/Lumet films. Most of this is thanks to director Scott Frank, who directed one of the ‘90s great film noir’s “Dead Again.”
This film is very aware of itself and the fact that it is nothing more than a good, old-fashioned, potboiler noir. It’s full of dialogue like “The bullet took a bad hop” and “I wasn’t brave, just drunk.” There is a lot of talk in the movie of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, and Frank does an exceptional job building tension and creating a gritty feel.
This is a very dark film, with an exceptionally dark central concept. Two of the films finest scenes, a shootout in a cemetery and a rooftop confrontation, are great examples of modern noir.
“A Walk among the Tombstones” has some issues but none which detract from the clever sendup to film noir and the great performances by Neeson and Stevens at its center.