Every film season, many disposable action thrillers make their way into theaters that any time a genre director displays basic filmmaking smarts, the result ends up seeming like a retro novelty. At the same time however that type of film seems dated in a way since the quality of TV productions has gone up. Such is the case with writer-director Scott Frank’s bleak potboiler A Walk Among The Tombstones, which stars Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder, the unlicensed, recovering alcoholic gumshoe from author Lawrence Block’s book series.
Based on one of Block’s 1992 novels, the setting has been changed to 1999 no doubt to evoke the uncertainty of the world on the cusp of the new millennium but more than likely the setting was changed to keep things as close to the present day while preserving the mechanics of a pre-Internet detective procedural story. The central plot, involving a pair of psychopathic kidnappers with a fetishistic predilection for rape and murder, is sort of flat. In an attempt to elevate the material beyond something you could find in a typical episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit are the strange almost David Lynch-inspired caricatures that Neeson meets in his investigation. Mobsters who speak in vague hushed tones, deviant cemetery caretakers w/ a strange demeanor, orphaned African-American boy who wants to be a Humphry Bogart-style detective and even the killers themselves are fascinating oddballs, and would have enlivened what should have been a prime-time miniseries on AMC or FX. Unfortunately the film is too enslaved to its typical structure and forced to move on to the next overtly familiar plot point at the cost of engaging with these characters. The cast is trapped in this repetitive procedural, which mostly consists of Neeson ambling through the seedy corners of New York, pulling out a phony badge, and asking questions. With the exception of one particularly unsettling interlude, the film seems to be actively avoiding distinguishing itself beyond having a somewhat interesting cast of misfits and freaks.
Neeson’s Scudder seems to be yet another stoic hero in the actor’s late-period tough guy/action-dad phase, continuing his campaign for the position of this generation’s answer to Charles Bronson. However, he’s differentiated in a reluctance to use violence and although the film seems primed for a bloody & cataclysmic pay-off it never quite reaches the cathartic heights of other Neeson-films like Taken or Non-Stop. His characterization is not sketched as precisely or deftly as those roles but it’s still the character promised from Neeson’s current career status and the film’s marketing. Neeson even gets to indulge in a scene where he threatens and menaces someone on the phone in an almost too-knowing wink towards the now iconic scene from Taken. If anything, these sort of stripped-down action vehicles starring Neeson and others of his generation somehow make their same-ness oddly comforting in that Hollowood action films like this are not made as often as they once were in the 70s-90s.
A Walk Among The Tombstones might actually be easier to appreciate for its framework and surface elements rather than anything put inside them. It is a throwback film with slick production elements neatly composed for the big screen with confidence by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master, Tetro). The presentation approximates what old-school cinephiles would call “a real movie.” It sparingly uses close-ups and is rich with space, overhead shots, and one-point perspectives: all of these techniques are well used and welcomed. There’s also a straightforwardness in its logic and narrative that’s neat in a time where “convolution” seems to be the trend. Not all of its throwback elements go down easy, however. Much of the thematic elements of the film are drenched in questionable definitions of masculinity and the women whose rape, torture and death drives the film are only ever seen in those uncomfortably fetishized sequences rather than existing as actual characters. It’s a smaller film that is supposed to feel intimate but rather it just feels small as in lacking scope. It’s admirable that this film basically delivers what it says it’s going to, but never goes beyond that or offers any sort of twist or new presentation on this “meat & potatoes” fare. The action sequences play as dull and trifling, rather than exciting or visually interesting all leading to a finale that just sort of fizzles out.
I was originally planning on using the word ‘solid’ to describe A Walk Among The Tombstones, but then I found myself asking, “Is ‘good enough’ really good enough?” Even genre devotees may find sitting through this film as the cinematic equivalent of eating airplane food: it’s not awful, it fills you up but it never quite hits any notes on your palate. You can’t help but feel if only the story had room to breathe or if only the action were more visceral etc this could have been something…more. it’s a bummer – Scott Frank can deliver much more than ‘solid.’ If he had taken this story to television, had been allowed to spread out a bit in this world, we’d all be breathlessly talking about Scudder’s adventures week to week. Instead we’ll watch a movie that’s good enough and move on.