Dir. by Scott Frank - 1 hr. 53 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
So let's get some stuff out of the way before we even get to the movie. First off, I'm a huge Lawrence Block fan (the author of the source material), and the idea of a movie based on anything at all that he'd written is pretty exciting to me. Secondly, I haven't read any of the Matthew Scudder books - I've read all of the Evan Tanner series, and all of the Bernie Rhodenbarr series, and some other assorted things here and there, but I haven't gotten into his darker material yet. It's not that I don't intend to, but more that I just haven't found time to do so yet. The other thing that I know is that previous adaptations of Block's work have been weak sauce, even though I haven't seen 'em yet. There was a Scudder movie from the '80s that had a far-too-young Jeff Bridges starring, and one of the Bernie books got adapted in the '80s, but instead of being about a middle-aged male cat burglar/bookstore-owner, it starred Whoopi Goldberg. So when I talk about "A Walk Among the Tombstones," understand that the bar has been set extraordinarily low for what I could hope for out of this project.
Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is an unlicensed private detective, of sorts, which isn't exactly how he puts it, although it is also pretty much exactly how he puts it. He's a former police officer who now has to deal in worlds where everything is referred to by euphemisms, and yet everyone knows exactly what's up. Scudder meets someone at an AA meeting whose brother could use his services. Turns out Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) is involved in the drug trade, and his wife has been abducted, ransomed, and brutally murdered by a pair of serial killers. Scudder is initially hesitant to help, but eventually agrees to get involved.
For most crime fiction, there are certain tropes that have to be adhered to (or at least acknowledged). I'm not going to pretend for a second that "A Walk Among the Tombstones" gets much further than that. You have to have a beleaguered, damaged hero, you need a murder (or murders), a mystery to unwrap, and then a face-off between whoever's left standing by the end of the film. It helps if there's a love interest (which there really isn't, here), or someone involved who depends on the hero (which there is). That's the genre chessboard upon which millions of words have been spilled. Once you admit that, the question becomes "did I enjoy the ride?" And I totally did. "Tombstones" is a solid ride with twists and turns, and it's executed well. Even more to the point, there were no big, dumb mistakes like casting Mo'Nique as an alcoholic ex-cop, just because fuck Lawrence Block and everything he's ever written about this character, you'll cash your check and shut your stupid writer mouth! Butthole!
To me, that's a giant victory. Just trusting the story and the character and avoiding glaring missteps is enough to keep me happy. Liam Neeson is great casting; Scudder is a character with miles on him, but there still needs to be a glimmer of competence and ability. And if this movie is similar to Neeson's other recent work, I don't really care. I didn't watch any of those movies, anyways. The rest of the cast are similarly scuffed up, albeit without the desire to do something for any reason beyond cash or revenge (or drugs, in at least one case). Director Scott Frank also does a great job of giving a sense of place to the movie - even though this is New York, this isn't a nighttime rainy/neony/grungy kind of place. Most of the movie takes place in the daytime, and we get to see wide shots of buildings and backgrounds, to the point where the city is not a mere backdrop to Scudder scowling. By the time we get to what the title is referencing, the switch to a rainy nighttime cemetery setting is jarring, and unsettling, which is exactly what it should be.
Like you'd expect, this is a dark, nasty movie, featuring a lot of unredeemable characters. Just like a good crime story should be. Ultimately, these kinds of movies are about surviving ugly situations, even when you're ill-equipped to do so. In that sense, this is a very positive movie, although not exactly an optimistic one. There's never a happy ending, so much as just a chance to catch one's breath before things pile up again. I liked "A Walk Among the Tombstones" quite a bit. I liked pretty much everything about it, certainly enough to hope for another round of Scudder in a couple of years. Even if I haven't read them, I know there's a ton of Scudder books, and finally getting a good adaptation of one of them (which is far from a sure thing) is a relief.
3.5 / 5 - Theatre