Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

Liam Neeson almost certainly didn’t have to make A Walk Among the Tombstones, but he did and it’s to Neeson’s credit that he could tell the difference between this lean and mean detective story and the recent spate of movies in which all he’s asked to do is be tough. A Walk Among the Tombstones is based on a Lawrence Block novel, one of a long-running series about a P.I. named Matthew Scudder. Neeson is very well cast as Scudder, besides the obvious physical menace he always looks like he either wants a drink or just had one and he seems perfectly at home on the streets of New York. Writer/director Scott Frank puts us in a New York we don’t usually see at the movies, an outer borough, late-’90s streetscape (it’s 1999 and Y2K is in the air) that’s as blasted out and deserted as a European war zone. This setting is home to a cast of characters living on the city’s margins. Scudder, a recovering alcoholic and ex-cop, is an unlicensed P.I. and his client Kenny (Dan Stevens) is a drug dealer. Kenny wants Scudder to find the two men who kidnapped and murdered his wife so that he can take his revenge, and soon enough Scudder discovers a pattern of killings involving the family members of others in the drug life. No fuss is made about the identities of the killers or about making them funny; they’re two men (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who appear to enjoy the terror in their victims’ eyes more than the money they collect. After another kidnapping Scudder lures the two into a confrontation and the last act of the movie is a piece of superbly sustained tension.

Describing the plot reduces A Walk Among the Tombstones to a set of genre conventions. The drama lies in watching Neeson uncover new levels in Scudder, not just at the climax but in his relationship with TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley). TJ is a homeless teen and would-be detective, and it’s the kind of role that could have been a cliché but is turned into something real by not overdoing it. There is also a terrific supporting performance by Olafur Darri Olafsson as the man who gives Scudder his first real lead. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a very satisfying film that’s also a fine vehicle for its star, and I would be up for seeing Neeson return to this role.

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