Friday, September 19, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

Review by Joseph Anthony

Liam Neeson must be the busiest man in Hollywood. It seems like every time you’re sitting in the theater waiting for his newest film to start, you’re watching Liam Neeson trailers. He’s doing a bit of everything: A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, ANCHORMAN 2, THE DARK KNIGHT TRIOLOGY and tons of voice over work (the latest being the great LEGO MOVIE). Lately Neeson seems to have cornered a very important character market: the tough guy. The hugely successful TAKEN films have cemented Neeson as the go-to guy for intimidating bad guys on the phone. If you’re into that, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES won’t disappoint.

Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former cop turned private investigator. We meet Matt in 1991, only for a brief moment. We see who he was, a smooth cop with a drinking problem who’s not afraid to chase down robbers and killers.

Seven years later, Matt is retired. He spends his time working as an unlicensed private investigator. His calm demeanor, popped collar, and low standards for jobs makes Matt the perfect P.I. for those who can’t turn to the police. Such is the case for drug dealer Kenny, played by Dan Stevens (DOWNTON ABBEY). Kenny’s wife has been kidnapped; he has been extorted for ransom and in needs help. Matt takes on the case when confronted with the absolute cruelty of the captors.

“People are afraid of all the wrong things,” say the kidnappers. And those words ring true. These guys are deranged and terrifying – down to the cold-blooded ease with which they butcher their victims. Think Jame ‘Buffalo Bill’ Gumb of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, except times two.

Once Matt starts looking into the case, more victims start piling up – all young women. What makes A WALK so intriguing is the treatment of the bad guys. At first, viewers see only snippets, blurry shots, lips talking into a telephone and extreme close-ups, which reveal very little. It seems we may have to wait to find out who they are, but this films not interested in that approach. Before long we know exactly who our killers are. In fact, the film never hides anything from plain view. The characters know what we know.

For this, I applaud A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. It would be too easy to dismiss the film for it’s unwavering approach towards simply solving the case. You sit waiting for something to happen, to be blindsided, or perhaps for a twist ending. Don’t hold your breath. A WALK is confident it can tell a compelling story without falling into what has become all too expected when attending the modern movie.

Matt’s story takes place in the 1990’s. Talk of Y2K and Backstreet Boys posters allow us to recall some of its less refined moments. However, the movie itself reminds us of some of the best qualities of detective pictures gone by. It bares comparison with the 90’s film THE BONE COLLECTOR or the grittiness of Sidney Lumet detective films of the 70’s, SERPICO.

The movie rests nicely in the hands of director/writer Scott Frank. Frank had only directed one motion picture prior, THE LOOKOUT, a nice indie picture that helped convince audiences that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the real deal. For the most, Frank has screen written every type of movie there is, most notably, MINORITY REPORT, GET SHORTY, MARLEY & ME, THE WOLVERINE. With A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, Frank seems to be in full control. The main benefactor of Frank’s writing and directing is Neeson. Even if Neeson’s movies are raking in money, the quality is sometimes suspect. Matt Scudder gives Neeson something meatier to chew on, even if, inevitably, he still just seems like Liam Neeson.   

The movie does work in a sub-plot in which Matt takes in homeless boy named TJ (a young actor who goes by the name Astro) who has an interest in detective work. Throughout the film TJ and Matt help each other in various ways. While parts of this story can be endearing and lend depth to Neeson’s character, more than anything it feels like an unnecessary detour for the fast moving investigation. Selfishly, I’d rather spend more time with Matt on the trail.

Regardless of any shortcomings, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES does much more right than wrong. It’s willingness to tell a pragmatic tale with out twist and turns works well. Neeson’s performance, which is convincing and steady, insures his continued perception as Hollywood’s oldest badass, and more important than anything provides two hours of creepy movie going.
3 out of 4 stars

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