Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity

Don't let the casting of Liam Neeson, the storyline, or the action-filled trailer (which, given how much of the movie it spoils, you should not watch until after seeing this) fool you -- A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on the novel by Lawrence Block, is not Taken 3. Rather, it is a slow-burn murder mystery with only two very quick shootouts at the beginning and the end, with almost everything in between composed of Neeson's character talking to people as he searches for the bad guys. And when I say "talking", I don't mean "holding people over the edge of a building and threatening to drop them until they talk", I mean an old-fashioned detective story. And while there were some parts that didn't really work for me and which I felt were a bit too much padding, this was still a good thriller with an engaging storyline and Neeson proving that, even having become an action hero, he's still the same great actor he was in Schindler's List.

That is important, because this is a film that lives and dies on the strength of its writing and characters. The story follows Neeson's character Matt Scudder, a disgraced ex-NYPD cop turned private detective, on the trail of a pair of serial killers who target the wives of drug traffickers, men who can't go to the police for help lest they risk revealing their illegal operations. They extort the traffickers, often very wealthy men, for ransom money before killing the women anyway and delivering the body parts back to them. It's a creative M.O. that justifies not getting the police involved, and as the layers start to unravel, it reveals a lot about Scudder and the people around him. This is a movie that gets very dark, to the point where there was one time when I wanted to turn away but couldn't because doing so wouldn't change the fact that it was an audio tape Scudder was listening to, not anything on screen, that chilled me to the bone. Neeson does great work here, first as the hard-nosed private eye when investigating the killers and again as a man struggling with his demons when he's looking back on the tragic incident that led to his departure from the force. The mostly unknown actors around him also do great work, even those who only get one or two scenes. My favorite had to be Brian "Astro" Bradley as a cocky young kid named TJ who wants to be a private detective like Scudder or Sam Spade, but hasn't a clue about what it's actually like, learning over the course of the film just how out of his depth he is and how much he needs to learn.

What hurts the film the most is its very slow pace that often seems to serve little purpose. For some reason, the story is set in 1999, with Y2K just around the corner and several references made to it. I didn't get the point of much of this, especially given that the book was published in 1992, and I found it to be a distraction more than anything. At the same time, while the actors playing them are great, the supporting characters often weren't fleshed out enough, at times being quite unlikable and all too often falling into the cliches of movies of this type. Scudder's struggles with his past don't get enough screen time compared to characters who are assigned details (Yuri's stroke-addled wife, TJ's hobby of drawing comic art) that seem like they were thrown in there only because they were in the book.

Score: 3 out of 5

It doesn't quite transcend the mystery thriller genre it's in, but a great performance from Liam Neeson and a creatively twisted plot help it to swim rather than sink. If you're into these sorts of movies, this one is certainly worth your time.

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