Scott Frank‘s slick, sky-is-falling neo-noir may be sold as the next installment in the “Liam Neeson kicks ass and takes names” genre but it’s as far from Taken as it is from The Grey. Dedicated to telling an uneasy tale of grisly murder and off-the-record justice, A Walk Among the Tombstones is the perfect vehicle for Neeson’s defining intensity. Adapted from one of Lawrence Block’s many new-age dick novels, Tombstones is plump with a decadent sense of malevolence often missed in films of its ilk. At times, Frank’s dedication to being so relentlessly dark ends up wounding the film, but irregardless, you gotta respect his all-or-nothing commitment to such a bleak, uncompromised vision. Like New York City before Giuliani cleaned up the streets, this gumshoe yarn is as nasty as stepping on a dirty needle.
Neeson is Matt Scudder, an alcoholic gunman who’s worked as a private detective ever since an incident made him leave the police force eight years back. When an AA acquaintance asks his assistance in a family matter, Matt becomes wrapped up in a ghastly murder case that can’t be brought to the cops. His employer is Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) an independently wealthy man (read: drug smuggler) whose wife was kidnapped and ransomed. But even after Kristo paid the hefty bounty, his wife was sent home in pieces, packed like the very drugs he dealt. Even without a ton to work with, Stevens broods through his scenes sporting a spindly black caterpillar of a mustache, his intensity burning through his baby blues like rising fires.
Before you can say “Boo”, Matt has hit the ground running, unearthing a series of clues that trace the murders back to associates of the DEA. Considering the film is – for some reason – set in the dwindling 1990s with misplaced Y2K fears running rampant and technological ability the exception rather than the rule, cell phones are sparse and clue huntin’ involves actually going to the stacks. Plopped in a rain-pounded library, Matt meets TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley), a street smart and techno whizz homeless kid with sickle cell anemia. Teamed up little Short Round and Doctor Jones, they race towards finding the devilish duo behind these macabre homicides.
This aforementioned unorthodox partnership between Matt and TJ could easily have been a massive problem throughough, as any adult-teenager movie relationship tends to be, but it actually works by and large. Having a competent but vulnerable youngin under his wing gives Neeson an opportunity to flex some less predatory and more protective muscles. Surely, the sickle cell anemia aspect is a strangely cheap ploy for tension in a movie already thick with it but giving Neeson’s Matt a character to watch over ups his vigilant instincts to silverback gorilla levels. Plus it makes for some great one-liners.
An unexpected bonus of the film is Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s dreary, deferential cinematography which offers a variety of interesting angles and lighting choices that harken back to the action films of the 60s and 70s. The opening credits scene as well as a POV shot down the barrel of a 9mm bring particularly noteworthy visual flair to the picture, further assisting to distinguish it as noir rather than a simple humdrum, action movie. There’s poignancy to Malaimare’s shots that won’t necessarily be worked out the first time through. But even while Malaimare and Neeson largely succeed, there are elements to this lurid tale that turn towards the cartoonish.
The villains’ – both of whom are without an ounce of humanity – morbid fascination with crudely deconstructing the female body exposes the sickly nature of their violent crimes but threatens to almost push the envelope too far. But then again, we live in a world that’s already seen Se7en and, more recently, Tusk so “too far” seems almost obsolete in this day and age. Nonetheless, Frank’s taste for bloodshed may leave some viewers wishing for less.
When darkness devours all, we’re left not being able to relate, but maybe that’s the point of a film that warns that “people are afraid of all the wrong things.” On the surface, it’s a winking Y2K tech joke but I’d like to believe there’s something beneath the surface that’s only vaguely hinted at. Something that pertains to how the embodiment of evil may be what we fear most when instead it should be how we respond to evil or, even more simple, how we respond to any kind of strife. Giving into a need for bloodthirsty revenge or ill-plated justice is what we should fear most, not the “evil” itself. It’s just a theory but I welcome a film that gives the opportunity for filmgoers to make their own meaning of things.
In opposition to those intriguing, subtle elements at play, a late stage shootout amongst, you guessed it, tombstones plays off as far too heavy-handed, showcasing a strong directorial decision that doesn’t entirely work out. As bullets tear the night sky apart, Frank intersplices a 12 step AA moral message amongst freeze-framed images of lives lost and chaos asunder. It’s probably the easiest scene to point to that tries at something almost novel and falls on its nose. I can’t however deny my appreciation for Frank making that nonconventional choice, even though it, as I mentioned, doesn’t fully pan out. While not a total representation of the picture as a whole, the hit-and-miss aspect of doing something great and following it up by tripping over the shoelaces does neatly define the endeavor as a whole.
But from the categorically necessary duster to that retro first scene goatee, this is Neeson’s show. Instead of just another paint-by-numbers actioner where Neeson’s shoots, solves and barks, Tombstones flushes out some actual inner demons, allowing Neeson to balance his proven dramatic chops with his newfound action star persona. He’s so much more than a loaded gun and a bottle of whiskey, part and parcel of what makes this film ideal for a bushel of sequels if they approach it from the right angle.
With easy humor courtesy of Neeson’s growled quips, well-directed drizzly dramatics and a thick air of hardboiled, gloomy atmospherics, A Walk Among The Tombstones brings to life the aged marvel of a good noir. It’s not always perfect and may run a touch too long but it works heartily as a well-greased, appropriately artful affair. And for those expecting another Taken, don’t be scared off. This is miles better than Taken 3.