In director Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, Liam Neeson once again demonstrates that he’s an actor with a certain set of skills. And those skills—the ability to kick ass while remaining cool, calm and emotionally detached—have turned up repeatedly in recent offerings like Non-Stop and the Taken films. In fact, his characters of late are nearly downright interchangeable. Thankfully, though, the stories are a little different so Neeson can tweak the brooding meter on his performances.
This time around, Neeson plays Matt Scudder, an ex-NYPD cop and recovering alcoholic with a tortured past. (This is slightly different from Bill Marks, the air marshal Neeson played in Non-Stop; Marks also had a tortured past, but was in the full-throes of his addiction.) Scudder’s now working as an unlicensed private detective, allowing him to skirt the law when necessary, much like Bryan Mills, Neeson’s ex-CIA character in the Taken series.
Scudder is solicited by one of his fellow AA members to help Kenny Kristo—played by Dan Stevens in a decidedly un-Downton Abbey role—with a problem that he can’t take to the police. Kenny is a heroin dealer whose wife had been kidnapped. Although he paid the ransom, the kidnappers murdered her anyway, and now Kenny wants to find the men responsible, using Scudder’s useful skill set. During the investigation, the PI learns that the kidnappers are serial killers, preying on the families of drug dealers.
Despite a visually interesting, but ultimately brutal, opening credit sequence, the film devolves into a conventional detective mystery that quickly becomes long in the tooth. The plot that quietly unfolds onscreen becomes unfocused and convoluted, with a requisite bloody red herring or two thrown in for good measure (that any discerning audience member would disregard immediately).
Although it clocks in at a little less than two hours, A Walk Among the Tombstones feels long—there are only so many times an audience can listen to or watch women get tortured. The film could have used another editing pass to excise a few of the more unnecessary moments, like the gratuitous final scenes, capped with a pedestrian wide shot of the Manhattan skyline at sunrise, with the Twin Towers in the distance. The film is set in the 1990s, and some of the visual queues are ridiculously in your face, so that no one forgets the film’s setting.
Based on a Lawrence Block novel from the author’s successful Matt Scudder mystery series, screenwriter-director Frank (The Lookout) borrows elements from other Scudder books, too, and not just the film’s namesake. One character, TJ, is a stereotypical, wise-cracking black street kid lifted from an earlier Scudder novel. Talented, smart and artistic, TJ is meant to be a sympathetic foil and sidekick to Scudder’s amoral skirting. Not only is TJ orphaned, but he’s homeless and battling sickle cell anemia, too. (Talk about tugging at the heartstrings.)
Brian “Astro” Bradley provides nuance and humor in his performance for such an overly simplified and sympathetic character. The chemistry between Neeson and Bradley seems forced, and that can be put squarely on Frank’s decision to foist the dynamic duo upon the audience without building a meaningful reason for their onscreen partnership. The two first meet at a library as Scudder needs help with research and TJ knows how to search the Web via Yahoo!
In fact, most of the characters are one-dimensional and predictable—including the serial killers. The film’s most interesting character, a creepy cemetery groundskeeper played by Ólafur Darri Ólaffson, has potential, but largely serves as a minor distraction in a plot that tries to do so much, and yet conveys so little. Neeson’s character is supposedly morally conflicted about helping out “friends” in exchange for “gifts,” but Scudder doesn’t register as a fully tortured soul. In a likert scale of Neeson characters haunted by his pasts, Marks of Non-Stop probably wins in that department.
While we can’t begrudge Neeson for being a veritable action star and box office draw at age 62, we do miss varied performances in films like Schindler’s List, Husbands and Wives and even as a doting dad in Love, Actually. Here’s to hoping that he puts the superhero character into semi-retirement after, yes, Taken 3 is released in early 2015.
Director: Scott Frank
Writers: Scott Frank (screenplay), Lawrence Block (novel)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson, Brian “Astro” Bradley
Release Date: September 19, 2014
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.