Now playing at a multiplex near you:
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES
(Dir. Scott Frank, 2014)
I liked Liam Neeson’s latest, Scott Frank’s A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES - currently the #2 movie at the box office - a lot more than I thought I would. It was clear in its first few minutes that it was going to have a much more thoughtful and artsy thing going for it, than in Neeson's last handful of action platters.
Its opening scene, set in 1991, has a bearded, scruffy Neeson working as an undercover cop named Matthew Scudder taking a shot of whiskey in a Brooklyn bar while on duty. Three thugs, oblivious to Neeson as he’s sitting in a booth, come in to rob the place and shoot the bartender. After fumbling for his gun, Neeson chases after the men and wastes them in the street with Dirty Harry-style efficiency. Unfortunately, a little girl is killed in the crossfire, effectively setting the film’s tone.
We then flash forward to 1999 with the Y2K scare heavily in the air, and Neeson now a recovering alcoholic working as a private investigator. He’s approached by a fellow AA member, an addict (Boyd Holbrook) who asks him to meet with his wealthy drug kingpin brother (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens in a distinctly different role). Stevens’ wife was kidnapped and killed despite his paying a $400,000 ransom, and he wants to hire Neeson to track down the men who did this for retribution.
Neeson initially refuses but changes his mind upon hearing a tape of Steven’s wife being tortured, and he starts following leads around the neighborhood she was abducted in. While doing research at a New York Public Library, Neeson befriends a street kid (Brian “Astro” Bradley, one of the highlights of last summer’s EARTH TO ECHO, and a highlight here) who becomes somewhat of an investigating partner.
Despite a twisty turn involving a chubby, creepy cemetery groundskeeper (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), there’s not much of a mystery about the kidnappers’ identities as we are introduced to David Harbour and Adam David Thompson as a couple of psychopaths who pose as DEA agents to target the wives and daughters of big-time drug dealers, who are unlikely to go to the police.
Another kidnapping involving the daughter of a Russian drug dealer (Sebastian Roche), is settled in a tense nighttime sequence set at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Strikingly shot by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (THE MASTER), the exchange/ensuing shoot-out has moments of humor and horror that won’t soon leave my mind.
Almost as memorable is the climax in the evil kidnappers’ house, complete with a scary basement showdown between Neeson and Thompson, though the inclusion of a voiceover reciting AA’s 12 Steps during this seems to be reaching a bit.
I also really could’ve done without Donovan’s “Atlantis,” already definitively employed by Scorsese in the mighty gangster classic GOODFELLAS, appearing on the soundtrack earlier in the film to accompany Danielle Rose Russell walking in slow motion and waving at Harbour and Thompson’s who are watching her and her father from their obvious white windowless van.
Based on the 1992 bestseller by Lawrence Block (one in a long series of novels starring investigator Matthew Scudder), A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES succeeds more than it fails and for that it should be commended as one of Neeson’s better later day works, one that actually calls upon him to better utilize his particular set of skills as an actor. Neeson's Scudder is a lived-in performance devoid of showy gestures; it's as grim and textured as the surrounding film.
But for those folks who see quick cuts of Neeson on the phone talking sternly to kidnappers in TV spots, and may be disappointed that there’s too much talk, not more action – don’t worry, TAK3N (that’s its actual name) is on the way.