Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

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Director: Scott Frank
Screenwriter: Scott Frank
Based on the novel of the same name by Lawrence Block
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Boyd Holbrook, Sebastian Roché, Whitney Able & Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
Runtime: 114 min // Certificate: 15

Liam Neeson (Taken) has a habit of injecting energy and passion into roles that simply don’t warrant it, and his turn as Matthew Scudder in A Walk Among the Tombstones – an adaptation of Lawrence Block’s crime novel of the same name – is no exception. Armed with a gun, a gruff voice and an alcohol problem (is this a prequel to Non-Stop…), Scudder works as a private investigator, having retired from the police force and given up drinking eight years previously, in the months leading up to Y2K. When a drug dealer, Kenny Kristo (Stevens; The Guest), asks him to investigate his wife’s murder, Scudder soon finds himself drawn into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with a pair of vicious psychopaths who get their kicks out of abusing and then murdering young women, from which the only escape is death for either Scudder or the two killers.

It’s quite fitting that A Walk Among the Tombstones is set in the nineties because it has all the aesthetic and narrative sensibilities of a classic nineties thriller. For years, Harrison Ford was earmarked to play the role that eventually went to Neeson, and it’s easy to see why. A Walk Among the Tombstones feels aged and dated before it even gets going, and though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (hey, we all love a nineties thriller right?) it does mean that the film is encumbered by the very genre clichés that modern thrillers at least attempt to subvert, lest they get lumbered in with the Double Jeopardys and The Fugitives of this World.

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The worst example of this is rooted in the limp characterisation. Though it boasts a decent central performance from Neeson and some solid, if not a little flavourless, direction from Scott Frank (The Lookout), A Walk Among the Tombstones’ biggest problem is that neither its villains nor its victims are given any personality whatsoever. For a film that seems at pains to stress the heinousness of the crimes being committed, it doesn’t really make any effort to elevate its murderers beyond crude caricature and, worse still, it reduces all of its female victims to afterthoughts; young, attractive, white women who are easy on the eye and who we hear no more than about three words from in the film’s entire runtime.

On the flipside of this, however, you have a focus on Scudder as a man, rather than just a private investigator, and though the revelations about his life are a. obvious, and a bit trite, and b. revealed in the spoiler-laden trailer anyway, Neeson’s performance grants some authenticity to this archetypal gruff bloke. That he is lumbered with a teenage sidekick for half of the film (“TJ”, played by “Astro” – yeah, don’t ask) is problematic, but it also allows Neeson to indulge in the brand of sarcastic humour that we’ve all come to expect, if not necessarily love, from him in recent years. Similarly, though it always feels like it’s treading old ground, the film uses Neeson to great effect to create something that feels old-school without once being boring or overstretched.

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There’s a lot to like about A Walk Among the Tombstones but at the end of the day it’s nothing new, and the attempts to inject a form of pseudo-intellectual, emotional wrangling into the fabric of plot just don’t work. The final act tries to tie-in the “twelve steps” programme with Scudder engaging in a gunfight with the two killers (the idea being, presumably, that on the day he gave up drinking, he also gave up firing a gun) but it’s crass and laughable, not least because it’s accompanied by a voiceover that does nothing but interfere with the natural flow of the story. When it accepts its place as a simple thriller it works quite well, but when it descends into crude moralising or when we’re asked to accept that Scudder would give a single shit about his teenage sidekick, it quickly stumbles into unintentional self-parody.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is derivative, but what else were you expecting when you saw a picture of Liam Neeson brandishing a gun on the poster? It’s a fine film, albeit in its own way, and it’s much more brutal and intense than I was expecting. It’s also, alas, much too ridiculous to be taken anywhere near as seriously as it apparently wants to be. The result is a film that is passable but nothing more. Still though, I guarantee you it’s better than Tak3n will be…