Directed by: Scott Frank
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Sebastian Roché
The title may conjure up images of a horror flick, or a particularly dark spaghetti western, but A Walk Among the Tombstones belongs to a genre that's been absent from our screens for quite a while. It's an old-fashioned, hardboiled detective thriller, based on one of author Lawrence Block's many Matt Scudder novels.
Neeson is Scudder, a brow-beaten, ex-cop and ex-alcoholic who left the NYPD after accidentally shooting dead an innocent bystander while pursuing a perp. Now he's self-employed as a private detective, in his words "performing favours in return for gifts." When drug dealer Kenny (Stevens) asks for once such favour, Scudder is instantly dismissive, but is persuaded to take on the case when he becomes privy to its gruesome details. Kenny's wife was abducted and murdered by a pair of men who collected a sizeable ransom from the dealer. Turns out she wasn't their first victim, and doesn't look like being the last, as the kidnappers are targeting the drug Lords of New York, knowing their targets can't ask the police for help.
The most interesting facet of Scott Frank's first directorial outing since 2007's The Lookout is its setting. Playing out the story in 1999 distances it far enough away from today's technology, which enables anyone willing to trawl through Google to perform their own investigation. There's nothing more detrimental to a thriller than having its protagonist spend half the running time sitting in front of a computer screen. Here, Scudder relies on pounding the pavement, taking notes in short-hand from witnesses and suspects. He's oblivious to the impending Y2K 'crisis' that permeates the background of the film, much to the mockery of his adopted sidekick, a homeless young boy who functions as a streetwise update of Charlie Chan's Number One Son. This relationship feels out of place, with too much time spent developing it only for it to ultimately serve little purpose as far as the story is concerned, and it's tonally out of whack with the rest of the film, which is quite dark.
Neeson could do this sort of thing in his sleep, continuing his late career tough guy revival, but he's undoubtedly well cast. The Irishman possesses a Bogart-esque ability to portray a sensitive centre in a rugged shell. Stevens continues his mission to distance himself from the politeness of Downton Abbey, and Frank proves a competent, no-frills director. Mihai Malaimare Jr's cinematography is suitably dark and oppressive, fitting in with the late 90s setting, reminiscent as it is of era works like David Fincher's Seven and the TV series Millennium.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is far from ground-breaking, nor is it particularly original, but there's enough here to satisfy fans of the gumshoe genre.
By Eric Hillis