No Liam Neeson film appears to be complete these days without its solo-billed crusader growling down a phone line to the overconfident criminal who has made the mistake of crossing him. Taken (entertaining) Taken 2 (dreadful) and Non-Stop (silly) have all featured Neeson’s gravelly telephone manner and the upcoming Taken 3 will surely plough a similar furrow, for old time’s sake if nothing else.
In that respect, at least, his latest grim-faced escapade, A Walk Amongst the Tombstones, is no different. As this terrific mystery-cum-thriller hurtles towards it blood-soaked conclusion, Neeson’s Matthew Scudder, a weathered gumshoe of the old school, reaches for the handset once again. Fortunately, given the quality surrounding it, this familiar trope feels like nothing more than a simple plot device in The Lookout director Scott Frank’s muscular screenplay.
Mercifully, Tombstones is a different beast to the gratuitous action feasts so beloved by Neeson’s accountant. Intense rather than overbearing, spartan without feeling abstract, Frank directs a stylish, lean adaptation of crime writer Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel, the tenth entry in a series which goes back as far as 1976.
Block’s protagonist is Scudder, an ex-NYPD detective who quits the force after accidentally killing a child in a wantonly carefree street battle with a gang of thugs. Working around the date of Block’s book, the prologue here takes place in 1991, with Scudder snuffing out the scumbags who shoot up the bar in which he is consuming his morning fix. Eight years later he is an unlicensed private detective, and recovering alcoholic, who prefers to keep his head down and the gun in a closet.
His lonely existence is interrupted by the overtures of strangely monikered drug trafficker Kenny Kristo — a haunted Dan Stevens, jettisoning that awfully nice Downton Abbey persona for something much darker — who requires a discreet operator to find those behind the kidnap, ransom and murder of his wife.
Scudder obliges, trawling a dank world of snuff movies and narcotics in the process. From the beginning he is a step behind a series of horrifying deaths, the connecting tissue of a case with implications beyond pure psychopathy, though Neeson excels as the dogged sleuth, leaning his broad frame into the cold New York wind as winter and the Y2K scare approach.
Considering the nature of the leading man’s recent output, it almost seems strange to witness him eschewing gung-ho activism for more sedate qualities. Indeed, the opening scene aside, Scudder is no adrenaline junkie. He prefers brains to brawn and preaches a roughly conciliatory attitude. In one scene, faced with a dagger-wielding suspect, a mix of Neeson’s imposing height and Scudder’s quiet physicality is enough to avert what would have been a gruesome confrontation in a less considered film.
Frank is clearly aiming for a creepier tale and employs sporadic, startling violence to build tension, to support his bleak narrative. There is hard-boiled narration also, unobtrusive and effective, which helps to keep the audience abreast of the reluctant hero’s relentless snooping.
Unfortunately the motivations of the murderous duo (Adam David Thompson and the always superb David Harbour) remain a mystery. Their place within a web of DEA scheming should be compelling but is poorly drawn out, leaving Scudder confused along with everyone else. That said, they are an undeniably menacing force. Thompson, in particular, displays an unsettling degree of passive aggression as the taciturn partner in a vile enterprise.
Whatever the source of their urges, these are worthy adversaries for Scudder who is, in turn, unlike the tortured souls which tend to populate these occasionally clichéd genre pieces. The Ballymena native is a perfect fit for a practical man with neither the time, nor the inclination, to entertain demons and while his past deeds may constitute a particularly unpleasant learning experience, instead of a soul-consuming shadow, Scudder is no hardened automaton. His burgeoning mentorship of a precocious street kid (Brian "Astro" Bradley) offers some glimmer of normality and Neeson can, of course, do this kind of smart ruggedness in his sleep. His American accent is still a work in progress, mind.
In truth, such minor criticisms mean little once the rainy finale arrives: Scudder descends into the foulness that characterises so many modern noirs, his 12-step program punctuating the designed chaos of the concluding reel. With its slo-mo gunplay, sombre sense of prescience and a twist that never comes, Frank’s ultimate message is not entirely clear. Neeson’s journey to that point, however, is terribly interesting.
An edited version of this article was was first published here.