A Walk Among the Tombstones is your standard, traditional Noir flick; in other words, it feels pretty dated.
In A Walk Among the Tombstones, ex-cop turned unlicensed investigator Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is hired by drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) to investigate the kidnapping of his wife. Reluctantly, Scudder takes the case – but what he learns quickly turns a simple kidnapping into a cat-and-mouse game with two nightmare psychopaths.
With the help of a young street kid (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley), Scudder closes in on his men; but with the wolves still on the hunt themselves, it becomes a question of how fast Scudder can get to them, before they get to another unfortunate victim.
Written and directed by Scott Frank (Minority Report, The Lookout), A Walk Among the Tombstones tells a story set in 1999, and very much feels like a movie made in that same year. Coasting on “Liam Neeson with a gun” marketability inspired by the Taken franchise, this slow-burn Noir film offers little in the way of action, and ultimately commits the grave sin of being stiflingly boring.
Frank’s artistic ambition behind the camera is admirable, but his directorial focus and control have yet to fully develop. From an oddly arthouse-style (and violent) opening, to sporadic moments of film school exercises in technique (jump cut sequences, impressionist closeups, juxtaposed montages linked by voiceover, etc…), Frank punctuates a typical gritty Noir detective tale with what feels like unsure experimentation, rather than purposed craftsmanship. That’s not to say it’s bad; in fact, visually, it’s very much above average. However, it’s that nagging feeling – a lack of directorial focus and purpose – that drags down the movie, ultimately.
On paper, the script by Frank (adapting the novel by Lawrence Block) has a lot of deep literary elements fitting for the Noir sub-genre. The troubled detective, plucky sidekick, dark gritty view of the street world, etc. – it’s pretty standard fare that doesn’t even seem to carry the self-awareness of Neo-Noir or a throwback homage. A Walk Among the Tombstones is your standard, traditional Noir flick; in other words, it feels pretty dated.
It’s hard to tell exactly where the source of the problem is, not having read the novel. Regardless, the film version cuts its own legs out from under itself early on. There’s no real mystery (we spend almost as much time with the killers as the detective); there’s no real action (gruesome, disturbing, moments, but no real action that Liam Neeson fans expect); and many character arcs and/or interactions never really get the payoff they need. Thematically there are vague parallels drawn between the arc of the investigation and 12 steps of addiction recovery – but none of that feels enlightening or even important by the time the film fizzles out into its ending. Just a journey with no real sense of destination, completion or fulfillment.
The cast of actors isn’t at all bad. Liam Neeson is by now well at home in this type of role (gruff, tough, oddly accented ex-badass), so if you are a fan of his brand you’ll also be right at home with his character and performance here. Brian “Astro” Bradley (X-Factor, Earth to Echo) continues to be a surprising standout, managing to scene-steal from his prestigious co-star and win over with an uncanny charisma.
The rest of the principal cast include Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens playing a tormented bad guy in Kristo; Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as a weirdo suspect; Pan Am star David Harbour as the principal (and more talkative) member of the psycho duo; Adam David Thompson playing the less talkative (and even freakier) psycho; and The Big C star Boyd Holbrook as Kristo’s twitchy junkie brother. They’re all pretty solid, with Harbour and Thompson making for effectively scary (if ultimately underutilized) bad guys.
In the end, A Walk Among the Tombstones (aka “Liam Neeson With a Gun Pt. 6”) is easy to recommend – as a future rental. With nothing new (except an unfocused and underdeveloped visual shorthand) to speak of, and an overly familiar role from Neeson, it’s a pretty blasé affair that certainly won’t be a Walk to remember.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is now playing in theaters. It is 113 minutes long and is Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity.