A Walk Among the Tombstones – Review by David Turpin
Directed by: Scott Frank
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Brian “Astro” Bradley
Liam Neeson’s tenure as the king of mid-budget off-season action programmers trundles on with A Walk Among the Tombstones, a dour crime opus adapted from a novel by Lawrence Block. Block’s ongoing series on the recovering alcoholic private investigator Matthew Scudder includes some 17 novels, but its perennial popularity on paper has yet to transfer to the screen, the lone previous adaptation being the Jeff Bridges vehicle Eight Million Ways to Die, an expensive flop in 1986. Efficient as it is in certain departments, A Walk Among the Tombstones seems unlikely to drastically alter Scudder’s cinematic fortunes.
Based on an instalment published in 1992, the new film finds Scudder (Neeson) employed to track down a pair of kidnappers who gruesomely murdered the wife of a drug trafficker (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens in an image recalibration exercise) – even after her ransom was paid. Some degree of shading is added to Scudder by the incremental spooling out of a tragic back-story that, unfortunately, is revealed in its entirety in the film’s trailer. The would-be hardboiled nihilism of the central strands is also counter-weighted by a sentimental subplot involving Scudder’s mentoring of a tough-talking but vulnerable young urchin (is there any other kind?) played by U.S. talent show alumnus Brian “Astro” Bradley.
Unlike cheerfully absurd genre exercises Unknown (2011) and Non-stop (2014), A Walk Among the Tombstones aspires to some degree of “realism”. This manifests itself principally in a nastiness not present in those earlier films, including one particularly ugly torture scene. In fact its most obvious ancestors are not Neeson’s previous action excursions but second-string serial killer procedurals from the late 90s, such as Kiss the Girls (1997) and The Bone Collector (1999) – an association that the film’s period setting of 1999 does little to dispel. Unlike either of those films, however, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a film about violence against women that is populated entirely by men. Like Dirty Harry (1971), it sets out to goose viewers with the violent misogyny of the crimes it depicts, yet offers no female perspective. None of the film’s victims is permitted so much as a line – the vanished wife who motivates the story is represented only by a salacious painting and an agonised scream on an audio tape. Whether or not the absence of female characters is representative of the grubby demi-monde in which Scudder moves, it has the curious effect of making the hideous crimes at the story’s centre rather remote and abstract, undermining the potential for tension. Interestingly, in the now obligatory charged phone call sequence, our hero implies that the misogynist villains are themselves lovers – an insinuation supported by an admittedly disquieting scene of their humdrum domesticity, but left hanging as empty titillation.
Thematic reservations aside, A Walk Among the Tombstones is competently handled. The opening shoot out sequence is pleasingly old-fashioned, setting up a scuzzy throwback style that could have been taken further than it is. The other action sequences are fairly muted, with the most spectacular moment being a genuinely startling rooftop scene that, again, is revealed in the trailer.
The film’s balance of neo-noir and grindhouse comes unstuck, however, in one shootout that is spliced with an (unseen) woman’s recitation of the Twelve Steps – a grandiloquent gesture that seems to have been imposed in post-production, if its halting patchwork of cross-cuts and freeze- frames is any indication. The final shot – which won’t be spoiled here – is a neat summation of A Walk Among the Tombstones as a whole. It gets the job done, but there’s little reason to keep one’s eyes open for a follow-up.