Thursday, September 18, 2014

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" (2014)

Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens and Brian "Astro" Bradley
Written and directed by Scott Frank
Rated R - Violence, strong language
Running Time: 113 Minutes

Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is a former New York cop and a recovering alcoholic. Not quite a private detective, he does "favors" for people who, in return, give him "gifts." One night he's approached by someone from his AA group who says his brother is in need of some help. That brother, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), turns out to be a drug trafficker and someone has just murdered his wife.

It seems Kenny's wife was kidnapped, and when Kenny paid the ransom, his wife was returned to him - cut up into little tiny bags. Against his better judgment, Scudder takes the case.

But the more he looks into it, the murkier things seem to get. It seems Kenny's wife isn't the only victim. It seems, somehow, that the DEA is involved. It seems, somehow, that even the other victims have secrets. And the killers have already identified their next target.

Let's be clear: "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is not "Taken," despite some surface similarities. About as close as you're going to get is a couple scenes of Liam Neeson talking to some kidnappers on the phone. But this is not an action film. Neeson's Matt Scudder doesn't torture anyone or take apart a drug cartel one broken bone at a time.

This is a slow burn detective story. Based on the tenth in a series of novels by Lawrence Block, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" presents Scudder as a man who doesn't have much. He used to have a real job, a family, a life - but all that is gone now. Neeson's Scudder is weary, and ultimately takes a job he doesn't really have the stomach for because he feels sorry for Dan Stevens' Kenny Kristo, even knowing the man is a drug trafficker and this is likely what got his wife killed.

Scudder is broken and tired, but he's not without a heart. While trying to do some research at the library, he meets a young teen named TJ who helps introduce him to the Internet (the film takes place in 1999 and is littered with references to the Y2k scare) when he breaks the microfiche reader. TJ is homeless, but a talented artist who understands the new world that Scudder doesn't seem to care much for. TJ also tries to romanticize Scudder's life as a PI. But the two form an unlikely bond that remains one of the more satisfying aspects of the film, even if, plotwise, TJ doesn't really fulfill an entirely critical role. Actor Brian "Astro" Bradley does well and has good chemistry with Neeson. The back and forth between the two, especially with Scudder trying to understand TJ's late 90s teen lingo, are some of the film's warmest and funniest scenes.

Dan Stevens, of "Downton Abby" fame, is also notable as Kenny, who hires Scudder to find the men who murdered his wife. His first scene is a bit hard to judge, but his next appearance, when he confesses to Scudder that he can't bear to say his wife's name, he knocks it out of the park. He takes a character that's little more than a cliche and, however briefly, imbues him with real emotion.

The script further sets it apart from "Taken" by having Scudder be the type of man to bluff, bullshit or bully his way out of a situation. In one scene, confronted by a man with a knife, Scudder deftly negotiates for his own life with the mere threat of violence and we're not quite sure whether he's telling the truth. "You caught me," he says. Later, he manipulates the kidnappers over the phone to get what he wants by turning their own logic against them.

The period setting of the late 1990s works well. Brooklyn is a dirty, dangerous place. A layer of grime seems to cover just about everything. Bodies are dumped in vacant lots or abandoned cars. Characters use pay phones (one of the best gags involves the kidnapper running out of quarters). The film itself, with some tweaking, could have even have felt like it was made in the 90s. Perhaps if the director had added a bit more brown and an extra dose of grain... Or if TJ's internet searches didn't load so blazingly fast. But I digress. Writer/director Scott Frank crafts a film that feels bleak just as its world is on the cusp of a new century, and sprinkles it with little bits of hope - Scudder's AA meetings are important for both the character and the film.

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" is not without problems. It leaves a couple threads dangling, though nothing important. Its philosophies can sometimes come across as heavy-handed. The climax isn't quite as strong as one might hope after such wonderful buildup. The female characters are pretty much just victims.

And, let's face it, there are a lot of private detective cliches happening here. For that last one, the quality of the script and performances totally make up for it, at the same time that those cliches also firmly embed the film in its genre. Luckily, none of this is enough to derail the picture, it just means that while the film is well-made and solidly enjoyable, it's not transcendent. It's good, but not great.

There's a lot to like, though, if you're looking for a good, stylish detective story. But if you're looking for "Taken," better to just watch that. This isn't it.