Know that this critic gives Scott Frank a lifetime pass for having written Dead Again, Malice, Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Minority Report. An Oscar-nominated scribe, he’s a neo-noir genius with a penchant for crackerjack plotting and an ear for tough, tense dialogue (barring Marley & Me). It’s exciting to see Frank write a script based on Lawrence Block’s long-running Matthew Scudder crime novels. Scudder’s a hard-nosed NYC detective who’s divorced, a recovering alcoholic, and a street-wise dude. Frank’s up to the task for writing this.
Oh, he’s directing, too? You know what, that’s okay. We could do much worse for a thriller (see: last week’s improbably successful, sexist No Good Deed).
A Walk Among the Tombstones is a perfectly serviceable paperback potboiler. Pitched as a fall star vehicle that’s unique and above average enough to grab cash, the Scott Frank thriller has the benefit of being just isolated enough in the release schedule to have a shot. But honestly, this is old hat, a story about one tough cop looking for lost dames in a messed-up world.
New York City 1999. Liam Neeson is the long-lived Matthew Scudder. Weathered, gruff, tough, Neeson’s gangbusters. It’s a role he was born to play late in life, as part of his Nee-ssance. Shuffling around in his brown corduroy jacket, Scudder’s an old-fashioned dick; averse to cell phones and computers, he’s all about using his gut and following leads, and Neeson makes you think he’s actually pretty damn good at it. Scudder’s a role that middle-aged actors dream about, and Neeson’s just the man for the job, with his gravelly voice and exhausted yet confident presence.
Scudder is offered a job. A junkie from Scudder’s A.A. group brings the detective to a young drug trafficker, Kenny (Dan Stevens, with crazy eyes and bad facial hair), whose wife was kidnapped. Kenny was supposed to trade a million bucks for his wife’s safe return, but instead gave $400,000 and was given his wife back in chunks. It’s gross, it’s unexpected, and Kenny wants vengeance. No cops, of course, given Kenny’s line of work. He needs a guy like Scudder to sniff out the maniacs that did this. Scudder reluctantly accepts.
From there, it’s a deepening maze of corruption, secrets, and pulpy characters. Scudder navigates a more grounded crime world, searching for two serial killers with an M.O. for kidnapping women who are connected to drug dealers. The movie isn’t Neeson kicking in teeth in the name of a high concept. This is Scudder using his wits to size up situations, waiting, then seeing what he can do to help. It’s invigorating to see Neeson refrain from weapons, talk about how guns are stupid, and be more casual and graceful than in Taken or Non-Stop or The A-Team. He does talk tough over the phone at one point, extensively, maybe even contractually. But still, this is crime stuff, served best with a shot on a cold city night, with saints, sinners, and psychos on the scene.
Scott Frank makes shrewd use of his characters and plotting. Scudder interacts with a homeless kid, TJ (a really sharp, likeable young actor named Astro), a wise-ass with a desire to be a detective himself. A seemingly disturbed cemetery groundskeeper (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) has much less edge than you’d think when confronted by Scudder. The mobsters Scudder meets are unusually family-oriented. No, family, not the family. The guys kidnapping women that Scudder chases are banally evil, very articulate, and patient. A Walk Among the Tombstones may seem like another lone cop story, but it excels with its little differences. It feels ever so slightly like a ‘70s B-grade ensemble piece, almost an homage to Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry or Charley Varrick, with much less machismo.
The only real setback is in the direction. Frank’s script is killer, but his direction is unsure. Frank has a penchant for abstract camera angles, needless cross-cutting, and occasionally draggy pacing. His resources are phenomenal, yet his vision could have used another cut or two. For instance, a shoot-out being spliced with the voiceover of the 10 steps from Scudder’s A.A. program is extremely amateur stuff. The little asides and unusual choices are noble, but they accidentally make the film feel less assured than the detective it’s about. It works, mostly, but when it doesn’t you notice. It can make the walk among tombstones feel more like a dash, slowed to a strut, then stalled at an awkward standstill.