Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

It has been five years since "Taken".  At this point I need to accept the novelty of Liam's Neeson's career recreation, a former Oscar contender turned pulp action movie star, is no longer an elaborate gag, but a permanent state of being.  Oscar Schindler and Qui-Gon Jinn have become a grizzled angry man punching people in the face, and any level of irony ran out around the time Neeson was racing cars through Berlin in "Unknown".  So as long as he's become a crowd-pleasing gruff voice with sharp features and a gun, Liam Neeson is going to do crowd-pleasing genre films.  We have had the shooting wars in European cities ("Taken"), the nonsensical thrillers ("Non-Stop"), the survival adventures ("The Grey"), seems that we are overdue for a pulpy hardboiled detective noir, right?

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" is everything you would come to expect from a basic pulp fiction crime thriller, the kind that authors spend entire careers cultivating franchises around.  You know the drill:  a tortured detective, a city, and their battles against maniac serial killers, selling volumes after volumes.  Be it Alex Cross, Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Kinsey Millhone, etc, it is a genre made with obvious tropes, repetitive storylines, and read by a half-interested public who just want something saucy to read while at jury duty or the waiting room of a dentist's office.  Specifically this film comes from the Matthew Scudder novels, written by Lawrence Block, whose star is a divorced alcoholic private eye with a dark past.  Standard stuff.  This makes for the second attempt to adapt Scudder to the big screen, following the very poorly received 1986 Hal Ashby effort, "8 Million Ways to Die" starring Jeff Bridges and written by Oliver Stone*.  Will thirty years be enough time for a true franchise to begin?

Neeson is definitely the right actor for this material, carrying with him a dry air of veteran menace and bitterness in every scene.  Director and writer Scott Frank designs his film with an older era of noir in mind, with much of the cinematography resembling angular crime films from decades past.  Set in New York of 1999, the film returns to a traditional kind of investigation.  Scudder walks the streets and travels step by step from conversations with witnesses, with the case evolving like an episode of a police procedural from the pre-CSI technocrat era.  However, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" never reaches beyond it's generic origins.  A standard crime novel becomes a standard crime film, as disposable in this medium as it was in the pages of a five dollar paperback.

Matthew Scudder, between his repeated visits to AA, is recruited by a rich drug dealer to find a ring of serial kidnappers.  These men are driving across the streets of New York in an anonymous van, stealing women, and returning them in dramatic fashion.  Scudder's current employer was reunited with his wife in the truck of an abandoned car in the Red Hook, with her body chopped up and packed neatly into several hundred cocaine packages.  This is a not a movie where the villains are particular nice to women, to put it mildly.   While researching in the public library, Scudder befriends a young African American homeless boy, T.J. (Brian "Astro" Bradley) who decides he also wants to be a detective.  Who wouldn't idolize Liam Neeson, the current patron saint of grizzled elderly masculinity?

This whole scene I was searching for the mad Nazi playwright who tended to those birds.
Definitely the highlight of this movie is Neeson himself, a perennial professional who will put in an intense performance in any film.  However while his air of noir antihero is finely tuned, Neeson's New York accent is not.  After awhile he seems to grow embarrassed of it (he can only keep it up for about three words at a time anyway) and abandons it entirely for his native Irish growl.  The character of Scudder is supposed to be guilt-ridden from his days in the NYPD and tempted by his alcoholism, but very little of that characterization actually makes it to the screen, beyond what we are flatly told.  So yeah, Scudder is painfully flat, and really the movie is not terribly good, but this is Liam Neeson we are talking about.  At worst, he will make something watchable and fun.

The supporting performances are somewhat varied.  As for our villains the performances by actors David Harbour and Eric Nelson are more than effective.  Harbour especially makes for an astoundingly creepy figure, taking a depraved pleasure in his dismembering fetish.  The real problem is T.J.  Astro may not be a bad actor, but the script peppers his dialog with rote slang phrases that were outdated in 1994, let alone 1999.  There's also the issue of Scutter taking along a child for his battles against the psychopaths, which really stretches credulity**.  These are people who will just as quickly rape you as cut you into pieces, and they have so much difficulty choosing they wind up doing both.  Who is going to take along a kid?  Naturally T.J. goes out of his way to stupidly put himself in danger, making the entire character's presence in this movie unwelcome.

In terms of watching Liam Neeson kicking ass (A.K.A:  why anybody would buy tickets for this movie) "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is more realistic than his usual glorious action nonsense.  He is not an invulnerable superman, getting his decided defeated once during the film.  You will still get Neeson dominating the bad guys over the phone with threats and steel will.  But when "A Walk Among the Tombstones" does need to have its action beats, they play well, and the limited number of them are appropriate for the genre.  You cannot create dread if your hero can solve every problem with bullets.  You need the bullet-based problem solving to come at the end, after the threads of the investigation have pulled bare and the tension has hit its peak.

Just give Neeson some kidnappers to shoot, and you'll have your movie.
Stranger is the decision to set this movie in 1999.  Perhaps Lawrence Block's twenty-two year old novel from could not translate into the Internet age, and 1999 was the last year this movie could plausibly have been set with a luddite protagonist ignorant of computers and cell phones.  Scott Frank decorates the movie again and again with references to Y2K - a recurring theme whose exact meaning confuses me.  It never factors into the story more than a meek way to establish time.  Little else feels like the 90s since Frank avoids playing Backstreet Boys songs or putting up posters to pop culture films of the time (as a Neeson fan I was hoping for just one reference to "Episode I", no such luck).  A skyline view of Manhattan very carefully crops out the still-standing World Trade Center, avoiding both painful memories and cheapening the film with a bit of cinematographic cowardice.  Yet the Y2K business comes back again and again, haunting the film for no apparent reason***.  Then again, the time period is of no particular substance either, in no way contributing to the mood or the themes, so maybe I should not worry after all.

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" is not a very substantial movie, but it was not really made to be anything more than a basic genre romp.  Liam Neeson will forever elevate any material he's given, but a movie so standard as "A Walk Among the Tombstones" stretches even his talents.  Without much of a clever premise and especially almost no proper twists to be found, this is a movie where the performances and the gory details of the murders will be all there is to keep your attention.  As for me, it only barely held my interest for the 113 minutes.

* Which I have not seen, but definitely want to see now.  Oliver Stone, Jeff Bridges, 1980s sleaze - I'm there.  The only downside is a 0% Rotten Tomatoes score and that Stone's screenplay was thrown away and rewritten twice.

** It is scary enough when our hero is trying to teach the kid gun safety.  Despite years of experience, and every reason to know better, Scudder allows T.J. to point the barrel of a pistol right at his own stomach - with a bullet in the chamber - to turn off the safety.  I gasped out loud in the theater, apparently the only person to realize what the kid was doing.  Naturally before this both Scudder and T.J. briefly point the gun at each other, which they both know is loaded.  This ends with Matthew Scudder telling the kid that he might as well shoot himself in the head, recommending that he throw the gun into the river.  It is supposed to be a paternal lesson on the dangers of firearms, which is undercut slightly when you realize the stupidity of this scene probably should have ended with one or both of them killed.

*** Being me, I hoped all this talk of Y2K might be our old friend Chekhov putting a gun up on the wall to be fired.  "A Walk Among the Tombstones" needed a shocking final third act twist where Y2K actually happens.  Then Liam Neeson will be forced to forget the kidnapping mystery to fight invading robots in the cyber-apocalypse.  Imagine twisted computer zombie bodies built out of rebellious blocky Dell computers, bundles of electrical cables wrapped all around bodies, sparking every so often, massive low-def monitors serving as their heads, the screens filled static  Crowds of helpless citizens in tattered cloths run as the machines fire projectiles, sharpened America Online 5.0 start-up discs, into their backs.  Then there is Liam Neeson cursing while he reloads his gun while keeping cover behind the blasted ruins of a Manhattan food cart.  Then he empties the chamber right into the face of the creature.  It falls over and dies while moaning the sinister sounds of a Dial Up Connection.  Neeson will growl out an action movie one liner, then reach into the food cart to find fully cooked hot dog, black on one end.  He takes a bite.  Then tosses it away.  He reloads, and marches forward into the falling Sun, knowing there is much work to be done.

When is somebody going to make that movie??


  1. 8 Million Ways to Die is enjoyably sleazy, and benefits from Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia's talents. Imagine Vice Squad if Ramrod actually killed the girl who doublecrossed him. The James Newton Howard score is also pretty sweet. Problem is Rosanna Arquette is a pointless romantic interest. On a tangential note the next film I saw after that, Le Grand Bleu, also had her as an unneccessary love interest. Also the title for 8MW2D is kind of a lie. I don't even think there were 8 of 'em.

  2. Ooooh Y2K zombie apocalypse.

    Sounds like a retro styled game on steam with a n64 aesthetic.

    Sword Of Primus