Whose ass is Liam Neeson kicking now? Academy Award nominee Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Brian “Astro” Bradley and David Harbour star in A Walk Among the Tombstones.
Director – Scott Frank
Screenplay – Scott Frank
Based on the novel A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block
Producer – Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Brian Oliver & Tobin Armbrust
Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity
Recovering alcoholic and former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is an unlicensed private investigator who’s hired by a drug trafficer, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), to track down two men who abducted and brutally murdered his wife. As Scudder investigates the crime, he begins to realize this isn’t the only murder that’s happened at the hands of these men.
Not gonna lie, when I first saw the trailer for this, I sorta rolled my eyes. Yay! Liam Neeson once again in kick-ass mode. Sure, I’ve been pleasantly surprised before with The Grey, and Non-Stop, earlier this past winter, was dumb, cheesy fun, but I’m tired of seeing Neeson act out his “particular set of skills” over and over again.
That said, two words caught my attention here: Scott Frank.
Frank, who wrote two of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations (Get Shorty and Out of Sight), as well as wrote and directed the criminally overlooked The Lookout, knows how to create engaging crime-thrillers, and he once again delivers here. Taking a smaller approach than what we see in most thrillers nowadays, this is not in any way Taken, so if you’re expecting that, you may come away disappointed.
What Frank did so extremely well in The Lookout he does again with A Walk Among the Tombstones, and that’s build and build the tension in slow-burn fashion. With a bleak and sometimes smoky appearance, there’s a film noir-ish quality to the picture that’s spectacularly shot by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. At times, Frank falls back on a couple genre trappings, but overall, this is a dark, dank and gloomy thriller that succeeds not just in the tone Frank has established, but also ’cause we get a flawed leading man worth rooting for.
Simply put, Liam Neeson can play this type of role in his sleep, but this isn’t the rock ’em sock ’em Neeson like in Taken. Here, Neeson plays a more introspective character, one that’s haunted by the personal demons from his past. He’s played this type of role more times than I can count, but he brings it every time, and this time he actually gets strong material to work with. The fact that he isn’t always falling back on punching someone’s nasal septum into the back of their skull makes his performance all the more compelling, and one of the best he’s given in years.
Backing up Neeson is Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, almost unrecognizable, who’s solid as the drug trafficker that hires Neeson. David Harbour is memorably chilling and creepy as the more prominent of the two serial killers that seem to be able to call the shots since they know their victims’ relatives can’t go to the police. As TJ, Brian “Astro” Bradley sorta gets the short end of the stick by playing the most wedged in of all the characters here. It’s the overused trope of the smart-ass kid that brings more out of the hardened leading man. That said, Bradley manages to make do with the cliche role by offering some nice back and forth with Neeson.
It should also speak to Frank’s strength as a filmmaker that he’s able to take a creed voice-over which accompanies the third-act confrontation, a technique we’ve seen done a billion and one times since The Godfather, and make it feel as fresh as if it’s the first time it’s ever been done.
Of course, like last week’s The Drop, see one thriller you’ve seen ’em all. Scott Frank’s stylishly dark direction, smart script and a strong performance from Liam Neeson, however, are all able to transcend genre conventions and deliver a stark and engaging thriller that’s a worthy follow up to Frank’s debut, The Lookout. This man should be directing more.
I give A Walk Among the Tombstones an A- (★★★½).
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