Despite its 2014 release date and 1999 setting, there is a decidedly 1970s feel to A Walk Among the Tombstones, Liam Neeson’s newest entry into his “a man with a specific set of skills” action genre. What begins as a vengeance job becomes a race against time to save a young girl as the film twists through the dark world of drugs and lies in this engaging, yet sometimes predictable, film.
As a disgraced ex-cop turned private investigator, Neeson navigates a bleak New York City in search of serial woman kidnappers/killers. Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a man with a dark past. The film’s cold open shows how he, a local policeman whose standing order is two shots and a cup of coffee, years earlier ran down some street thugs. What isn’t shown, but revealed later in the movie, is how that event impacted Scudder, pushing him to retire from the force and become a mainstay in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It is because of one of his connections from AA that Scudder is hired by drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) to track down the party responsible for kidnapping, killing, and dismantling his wife. When a pattern emerges, and the young daughter of another dealer is taken, Scudder, along with his homeless adolescent sidekick (Brian “Astro” Bradley) must track down the killers at all costs.
Based on the novel series by Lawrence Block, the story feels familiar enough: broken down private detective, seedy underworld, muddled morality. Scott Frank, who both wrote and directed, does a serviceable job with the material, although his insistence at referencing the time setting is odd considering that it has little relation to the overall plot. Not only are there repeated Y2K mentions, but even the posters on the girl’s bedroom wall (RENT and Backstreet Boys Millenium album) seem to be screaming: “It’s 1999! Party over, oops! Out of time!” That being said, the opening credits feature a chilling tonal shift that showcases the deft eyes of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. and skillful editor in Jill Savitt. Visually, the film works well with its material. From the plot to the music to the color palette, the film does feel like something that would have been made in the 1970s starring Charles Bronson. In fact, Neeson’s growling action identity is in some ways reminiscent of Bronson.
Overall, A Walk Among the Tombstones is the type of movie that feels like fall–dark and grim. It’s not Oscar-bait or horror, but a reasonable offering for those who like a good thriller without too many contrivances. There are some heavy-handed social issues that might not be the perfect fit, but they are minor distractions from an otherwise solid film. Revisiting this character could be an interesting option for the future.