A Walk Among the Tombstones
Review by Brandon Wolfe
It’s hard to recall now a time when Liam Neeson was anything than our patron saint of throat-punching. The actor’s post-‘Taken’ reinvention as an action hero has so thoroughly altered our conception of him that now when you see him in ‘Love Actually,’ you half expect him to snap that lovesick kid’s neck. In a modern era where truly masculine action heroes are a dying breed, Neeson has stepped up to fill the void. Deserved or not, he’s the surly, growling tough guy we need right now.
‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ was reportedly something of a passion project for Neeson, something he had to push to get made. This is a bit of a surprise because the film really isn't that far outside of his ‘Taken’ comfort zone. Again, he’s a terse and formidable professional. Again, he’s got his certain set of skills, both with a gun and his bare hands. Hell, he’s even trying to save a kidnapped daughter again, albeit not his own. This isn’t some artsy departure, this is simply what Neeson does these days. The actor has garnered some criticism for repeatedly playing the same type of character in the same type of movie, but he does it so well, and ‘Tombstones’ stands tall above many of Neeson’s recent action offerings. It’s an uncommonly well-made film for its genre, and if it doesn't technically offer us anything we haven’t seen before, both from Neeson or from cinema in general, I’ll take its well-oiled professionalism any day over the logic-starved preposterousness of ‘Non-Stop.’
Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former NYPD officer who now scrapes out a meager living as an unlicensed PI. Matt walked away from both the force and his alcoholism after a shootout following the robbery of his favorite neighborhood bar left a young girl killed by a stray bullet. Now appropriately haunted in trademark Neeson manner, Matt spends much of his time at AA meetings. After being approached by a fellow recovering addict, Matt is put in touch with Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a drug trafficker who hires Matt to find the men who kidnapped his wife and murdered her even after he paid the ransom. Though Matt initially balks at taking this case, the sincerity of Kenny’s grief wins him over and he starts to turn over some stones. Matt learns that these same men seem to be targeting wealthy members of the drug trade exclusively and that Kenny’s wife was not their first victim. His investigation leads him to Loogan (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a creepy cemetery groundskeeper and aspiring author whom Matt learns has ties to the killers. In one of the best scenes in the film, Matt finds Loogan’s rooftop hideout and calmly intimidates the man into relinquishing his knife and the upper hand using only the awesome power of his Neesonness.
The killers are a pair of psychotics who travel around in a molester van, scoping out targets, and the mouthpiece of the duo, Ray (David Harbour, suggesting an unlikely cross between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ty Burrell), seems to take perverse glee from mutilating women. They establish their next victim in the form of the preteen daughter of a midlevel Russian drug dealer named Yuri Landau (Sebastian Roche). Matt takes the reins in this instance, forcing the kidnappers to offer proof of life this time before receiving a single dime, and then setting up an inevitably violent confrontation.
‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ walks a well-worn path. It doesn’t present us with anything that we haven’t gotten from countless other films. We’ve seen this story, we’ve seen these villains, we’ve seen this Neeson all before. But it makes the familiar seem fresh by virtue of its craftsmanship. Director Scott Frank tells his tale with confidence, getting quality performances from all of his actors. The film takes us to some evocatively seedy areas of New York City and its violence carries a vicious charge. The film even makes the Dick Tracy-esque inclusion of a resourceful homeless kid (Brian "Astro" Bradley) that Matt adopts as a sidekick and partner somehow work without making us wince and groan.
Set in 1999 for no reason I can pinpoint other than for the characters to mention Y2K, ‘Tombstones’ is a fine potboiler. It’s a lower-key actioner than many of Neeson’s more high-octane outings in the genre, and beyond the voiceover device of Matt repurposing the 12 Steps in service of his redemptive final shootout, the film doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeve or much to say. It’s simply an old-fashioned, gritty crime-drama, and that’s just fine. The classics never die as long as they’re handled with care.
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