Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
Mathew Scudder (Neeson) is a reformed alcoholic and former New York cop who now works as a private investigator, but often working for favours instead of cash. Scudder is asked by a drug dealer (Stevens) to uncover the identity of the men who brutally killed his wife, even though he paid them ransom money. As Scudder investigates deeper he discovers the dark truth of these two individuals and the fact that this is not the first time they have acted out brutal murders which seemed to be aimed at loved ones of drug dealers. As Scudder is on the verge of giving up, these two men take another potential victim, giving Scudder not only the chance to finally stop them, but also find personal redemption for his own past sins.
If any actor seems to be typecast these days it is one Liam Neeson, indeed there is no denying that the character of Mathew Scudder, the protagonist of a series of books by Lawrence Block, is seemingly a perfect match for Neeson. Indeed, in concept alone A Walk Among the Tombstones has all the right ingredients for an excellent noir thriller; with a slow burn, dialogue heavy narrative that is in some ways a welcome relief from Neeson’s more recent beef headed dumb action films, unfortunately A Walk Among the Tombstones ultimately lacks the substance needed for it to get away with its pretentions, clichés and moody tone.
This is a shame as the components are in place for a good old school style noir detective thriller in the vein of stories involving Humphrey Bogart in the peak of film noir. Frank, in what seems more like shameless copying than paying respectful homage, tells the story slowly, with nasty and shady characters, no one ever cracking a hint of a smile, plenty of flashbacks, long shots and long takes with a pallet of winter greys and autumnal browns. Also, the fact that the film’s antagonists target criminals and that this is very much a film where the police are irrelevant and every character has a bad side is a good touch. In fact, A Walk Among the Tombstones is well made, at one point just to make the copying even more blatant a character mentions Sam Spade, yet despite all having aesthetically pleasing elements, it fails to engage and is a real effort to watch with very little of that effort being rewarded.
I of course cannot comment how good the story unfolds on the page, and I can imagine it is quite interesting and engrossing, but on the screen it never truly grips, partly down to Block relying heavily on lazy conventions of the genre. The main investigation itself has very little surprising revelations, even if there are plenty of phone calls for Neeson to threaten people with his trademark growl. The film’s climax is suitably low key, and though its consistency with the style of the rest of the narrative is admirable, its predictability and reliance on contrivances renders it pretty much a non-event.
Of course a noir detective drama would not be complete without a troubled protagonist looking for redemption for sins from his past, and Scudder is no different. Yet, despite potential, the film deals with it in a truly clunky and patronising way that it is border line embarrassing to watch. Also a subplot involving Scudder and a homeless teenager named TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) may play a part in the protagonist’s path to personal redemption, but fills like unnecessary filler, even if TJ is quite a likeable character.
As our world weary protagonist, Neeson, despite being in a role he tends to always play these days, seems on total auto pilot and looks very bored throughout the entire film. The rest of the cast, despite their characters essentially being lazy caricatures, all do excellent work. A much slimmer Dan Stevens is fantastically intense (with an excellent accent) as the drug dealer who asks Scudder to help him, proving that he should follow many fellow Brits in having a very successful career in Hollywood. Meanwhile David Harbour and Adam David Thompson are excellently sinister as the two murderers.
A Walk Among the Tombstones has all the components for an engaging old fashioned noir detective thriller, components of which director Scott Frank is happy to unashamedly copy with a startling lack of originality. However a total lack of substance that is further undermined by Frank’s reliance on genre clichés, contrivances and lazy caricatures makes the whole thing a true snooze-fest that is impossible to truly engage with.