A Walk Among the Tombstones

Liam Neeson, now deeply invested in his mid-career pivot into revenge-and-justice thrillers that allow him to threaten kidnappers on the telephone before killing them in person, could do a film like “A Walk Among the Tombstones” in his sleep. Goodness knows enough actors before him have breezed carelessly through a formulaic crime drama or two (or 10) for a paycheck.

But the tall, caramel-voiced Irishman, as taken as he is by the “Taken”s, the “Non-Stop”s, and the “The Grey”s, continues to give these things the full weight of his presence and attention. “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a potboiler, based on Lawrence Block’s series of crime novels, with a haunted ex-alcoholic ex-cop, a grisly murder, a precocious junior sidekick, several red herrings, and some uncooperative informants — everything you might want in a gritty detective yarn. (The junior sidekick even reads Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe stories.) But does Neeson phone it in? He doesn’t, not even during the parts where he’s on the phone.

Modulating his gruff lilt into something like a New York accent (kind of), Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, a 12-stepping former NYPD cop now working as an unlicensed P.I. While looking into the abduction of the wife of a drug trafficker (Dan Stevens), Scudder finds evidence of another murder apparently committed by the same meticulously vicious psychos. Though he’s usually a lone wolf (of course he is), Scudder accepts help from T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a streetwise street kid who’s better with technology than ol’ Scudder is. (By the way, it’s 1999, for some reason.)

None of this is unfamiliar to anyone who’s watched a crime film or two. It was adapted and directed, with a middle-of-the-road seediness, by Scott Frank, a talented screenwriter whose previous directorial effort, “The Lookout,” was a thoughtful, character-oriented crime drama. “AWATT” is plot-driven, but you can tell that this Matt Scudder character is supposed to be a draw, too. As with many P.I.’s, his treatment of others is a regular source of amusement. (A suspect asks what gave him away. “Everything,” Scudder says. “You’re a weirdo.”) But the suspects, victims, cops, and informants are mostly duds, and in Dan Stevens’ case, laughably miscast. Aside from Scudder, no one is interesting, depending on your tolerance for sassy tween urchins.

But the Neeson effect is not inconsiderable. We may have seen this movie a hundred times before (it reminds me of the ones Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd used to make; weren’t there like a dozen of them?), but Neeson treats it like it’s brand-new, and like it’s not pulp but literature. His commitment to character (accent notwithstanding) and his fatherly sincerity elevate this run-of-the-mill material to the level of serviceable crime drama. That’s why he’s a professional, kids.

B- (1 hr., 53 min.; R, a lot of profanity, HBO-level grisly violence, some nudity, general ickiness.)

Originally published at GeekNation.