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Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones portrays a man who has gone beyond the edge and returned, one who knows all about monsters and heroes. The film works hard to depict society’s underbelly and its denizens in a realistic light while showing what real horrors walk our streets and threaten even the worst of us. Based on the book of the same name penned by author Lawrence Block, the film’s protagonist is Matt Scudder an ex-cop, alcoholic and a man who distrusts modern technology. He is also the main character in 17 books written by Block.
Directed by Scott Frank (The Lookout), who also wrote the screenplay, and starring Neeson, Dan Stevens (The Fifth Estate, The Guest), David Harbour (Quantum of Solace, End of Watch), Maurice Compte (End of Watch, Sabotage) and Astro (Earth to Echo, The X Factor) the film, despite its disturbing villains and upsetting violence, is a brilliant step back into the old days of gritty detective thrillers and mysteries.
The beginning of the film sees one cop entering a bar where he gets a cup of coffee and two shots of what looks to be whiskey. As he is drinking the first shot and chasing it with coffee, two men come in and rob the bar, shooting the bar’s owner in the process. Scudder grabs for his gun and fumbles the weapon dropping it to the floor. The clumsiness saves his life as the shot aimed at him misses when he bends down to retrieve the gun.
The cop follows the two men out of the bar and in a scene reminiscent of Dirty Harry he dispatches three criminals in a short lived gun fight. When Scudder next appears he is in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and he is no longer a cop. He is now an unlicensed private investigator. The film’s open seems to be a clear cut case of heroes versus monsters, but that is an illusion. A Walk Among the Tombstones really begins when one of the former cop’s fellow AA members approaches Matt (Liam Neeson) on behalf of his brother. The man’s wife was kidnapped and he wants Scudder to track the men responsible down.
When the former policeman meets the brother, Danny Ortiz, he finds out that he is a drug trafficker and that his kidnapped wife was returned to him in little pieces. While investigating the crime, Scudder finds out that this has happened before. The kidnappers are actually setting up another drug trafficker for the same treatment but this time opt for his 14 year-old daughter.
Liam Neeson as the alcoholic former cop, now P.I. is the best he has been in a long time. The actor has been in a bit of a rut by playing the same sort of character repeatedly. In this film, the man looks shattered. His eyes are tired and appear blasted, this is an individual who has been to the other side of himself and barely survived the experience. As Scudder, Neeson fits into this world of the New York underbelly, where the “nice” guys are drug trafficker with “nesteggs” saved up to take themselves and their family out of a life of crime. A place where the real bad guys are sick, twisted killers who are more terrifying than any made up monster from a supernatural setting.
In some instances it almost feels like the film works very hard to come up with characters despicable enough for the audience to get behind the drug dealer victims. However, watching the film, it appears that all of these denizens of the seedier part of the city are people who fall between the cracks or miscreants that could not exist outside of this setting. Scott Frank manages to make two human monsters scary and damned close to the real deal.
This film looks gritty and dirty just like one imagines the streets of criminal New York to be in real life. The sets are perfect for the story and the cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master, Tetro) is darkly hypnotic. The opening sequence of the movie feels eerily like the bank scene from the 1971 film Dirty Harry with the inclusion of a cop with a drinking problem hinting at another Clint Eastwood film, 1977s The Gauntlet.
The open, however, is not saying that this will be an Eastwood clone film, it is stating that the movie will be an old fashioned detective mystery with modern villains and victims. A Walk Among the Tombstones with Liam Neeson as a main protagonist with more than his fair share of baggage tells a story of heroes and monsters in a shady world of imperfect people. While the film is not overly gory, and by today’s standards has a pretty small body count, there are scenes that border on traumatising. The movie opens on September 19. Head down to the cinema, put on a Sam Spade snapbrim fedora and prepare to watch some good old fashioned detective work that revolves around twisted criminals and the drug world.
By Michael Smith
AMC Town Square Theater 18