One could certainly say that there are no shortages of movies where gruff, no-nonsense older men go on vengeful killing sprees against over-the-top baddies. The list is long and impressive and includes some of cinema’s most noted actors. However, if you were forced to name one who has of late dominated the curious sub-genre, no doubt it would be Academy Award-winner Liam Neeson, whose credits in this field is the gold standard. You get points for Denzel Washington, a close second.
In 2014, the same year he capped the final film in the Taken trilogy, he starred in an another action thriller of similar ilk called A Walk Among the Tombstones, directed by Scott Frank, and based on the tenth novel in a series of books by Lawrence Block. It did well at the box office and earned mostly positive reviews though not entirely praising of its take on the clichés it adheres to. Most felt it was Neeson who made the effort worthwhile, working against the convention, so let’s look back and see how it holds up today.
Watching A Walk Among the Tombstones today, it does feel a bit of a let down, the story starting in 1991 when we meet Detective Matthew “Matt” Scudder (Neeson), who is told he needs help with his drinking problem, immediately going to a bar and tipping back a few. In walks trouble though as thugs burst through the door and shoot the bartender, BOOM, no fuss no rush. Scudder takes after them and shoots them in the street, but not without consequence, which I won’t spoil. Just know a bullet takes a “bad hop.” I guess that’s a spoil.
Eight years later, Matt is sober, having gone through a 12-step program, but is contacted by a drug addict in his group. He’s Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook) and he tells Matt of his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), claiming his wife has been kidnapped. Matt meets Kenny, realizing he’s a drug dealer, but sympathetic when Kenny explains that he paid the ransom for his wife but she was nonetheless delivered cut up into little pieces. This was the result of his refusal to pay the full amount. Matt heads to the library, doing research on similar murders, making friends with a homeless boy named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a wiz at computers (don’t forget it’s 1999 and guys like Matt don’t know nothing ’bout no computers) and suffering from sickle cell anemia. The two team up and soon have to save another victim who may meet a bad end.
Okay. Enough exposition. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover if you decide this is something you want to try, however, here’s my impression. Right away, Neeson is Neeson, and that has a lot of appeal even though he is basically the same character he’s been in throughout these shoot ’em ups. That is to say, he mostly looms and leers and speaks very little, though when he does, does so with weighted words. One might say he has a particular set of skills for this kind of role. Thing is, it doesn’t give us much to feel connected to, like a superhero, he’s basically invincible and there is no wondering where he’ll end up (something visually made clear in the final frame of the film).
It’s a little disappointing because the character comes loaded with burden that is not truly explored as it feels set up for, his recovery done in one scene and no real battle with the guilt of what happened with the shooting from the start. Matt is a cool character for sure, and Neeson is well cast, delivering a few great moments that earn some credit, including my favorite, a scene on a rooftop with a cemetery groundskeeper (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) that is the best written and directed moment in the film, ending with a genuine surprise. However, Matt’s relationship with TJ is entirely superficial and contrived, designed for one specific moment at the end that feels wedged in with zero heart. That’s not to say Bradley isn’t doing what he can with TJ, it’s just so transparent and obvious, it comes across almost a little insulting. I won’t even get into the fact that every single person Matt talks with in the story is a fountain of information. Meet, talk, learn. Move on.
Then we have the bad guys, played by Adam David Thompson and David Harbour, two creeps who have no established motivation other than being killers with access to some very special information. They brutally torture and then kill the two women they kidnap and then decide a fourteen-year-old girl should be there next victim, who, I’m not making this up, arrives on screen in super slow motion in a bright red jacket and hood. Symbolism anyone? One bad guy leers at her with such sexualized lust for so long as she strolls by, you half expect a title card to pop up reading: big bad wolf.
And these bad guys only get worse from there, and I mean that in a screenwriting context. Their actions are meant to be sinister, but Harbour – perhaps urged by direction – plays it so hokey, it’s laughable. And the final act sees the two bad guys suddenly develop an entirely new dynamic amongst themselves that doesn’t seem to make sense, one ultra minor clue at a breakfast table the only hint. Nor does much of the final moments though, a sequence that works to heap what Matt learned in his twelve-step program as motivation for what his responsibilities are in relation to all the bad people on both sides of this crime wave. I suppose it was meant not to be something thought about but rather looked upon only, the visual style the thing we’re supposed to feel connected to, but as it’s soaked in questionable motivations, it doesn’t work.
Okay, so what’s the good stuff? I did like the atmosphere in many of the early moments, even the first brief images of Matt at the bar with his two whiskey shots and a mug of coffee. That’s good visual storytelling where Neeson took control, and I wished had been more a part of the character. There’s some subtly to a few other images of Matt as he often stands and observes, like at a pond in a cemetery. You get a sense that he’s working on something, seeing something we don’t, and it got me excited that there will be some reveal later (there wasn’t).
I also like the potential in Peter Kristo, the drug-addled brother of Kenny. Holbrook is good in his limited screen time, and while the film mishandles his contribution to the narrative, there are some glimmers that give his character some weight even if the consequences in the story don’t. It’s really a shame because the film should have really been Matt and Peter meeting at the support group and developing a fragile relationship from there, one that would have had far more impact when Peter does meet his fate.
So, A Walk Among the Tombstones. Worth a watch? I can’t say I recommend it. Neeson isn’t phoning it in, but if you look at something like The Grey, with another Neeson character shouldered with emotional conflict, you can see what the right director can do with that potential. If you like standard thrillers with not much challenge (or logic), this will certainly entertain. Fair warning, it’s not an action movie, and I think the title alone makes that clear, but it’s also not a mystery or a genuine drama. It ticks the list of what it needs to and does so with perfunctory precision.