Liam Neeson has been tackling a single type of role in his recent films– an aging alpha-male that has been broken down by the misfortunes of life. This role is typically saddled with the loss of family, occupation, respect and so on. Usually, there is a body count in his past, and the character’s proficiency at committing violence varies per film as does his gloominess. Now, writer/director Scott Frank has given Neeson yet another chance to inhabit this skin in his new film, “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” a bland, uninspired potboiler of a crime thriller lacking in all the ways that matter.
The opening line of the movie contains a racial slur, because that is how we know the tonal dial has been turned to ‘gritty.’ Frank aims to create a modern gumshoe tale in the grand tradition of films like “Chinatown” and “The Big Sleep,” but falls well short of the target. Neeson’s shambling off books private eye, Matt Scudder, slips between a forced New Yawk tough-guy drawl and his native Irish lilt, “How much is it gonna bother you if I take that big knife and stick it in your neck?”
Lines like these are delivered by Neeson with all the non-authority of a new step-father, nervous about disciplining his inherited step-children.
T.J., a homeless teenager asks Scudder if his life as an unlicensed private eye is, “…like Sam Spade?”
“Yeah, just like him,” Scudder unconvincingly growls.
The ghost of Dashiell Hammett begs to differ.
The plot, as it stands, concerns the kidnapping and gruesome murders of the wives and daughters of drug traffickers. Scudder is roped into locating their killer(s) for wafer-thin reasons. Incidentally, he is a recovering alcoholic yet has no moral quandary helping men who peddle drugs. He refuses to accept the cash of Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), drug kingpin, who wants the murderer of his wife located. The case has no personal angle for Scudder, leaving the audience to wonder why the character is motivated to do anything at all, let alone pursue dangerous serial killers.
The narrative trudges along, with Scudder interviewing various citizens, each vignette filmed with all the drab authorship of an above average “Law and Order” episode. Nothing ascends past this low bar of drabness. The soundtrack is unremarkable; the set design is deep discount Pier 1 chic. The visual color palette ranges from brown to less brown. Even the antagonists, a pair of panel van driving sociopaths fail to frighten. In a cutaway shot to the exterior of the quaint suburban home serving as the killer’s lair, a “Dead End” street sign looms large in the foreground.
Indeed, Mr. Frank.
At one point, T.J. shows Scudder a pistol he found in the garbage (as one often does). Scudder instructs him how to load, unload, clean and take the safety off, then requests he put it to his head and pull the trigger. The lesson here is that carrying around a gun is the surest way to court death in your life. T.J. dutifully throws the gun away, and is mercilessly beaten to near death by a pair of street toughs as a consequence. Later, Scudder retrieves his own pair of break-in-case-of-the-climax pistols and uses them without a second thought. It is schizophrenic decisions like these that leave the audience in a state of confused malaise for most of the two hour run time.
The film takes place in 1999 and references Y2K multiple times despite the source novel having been published a decade prior to the millennium.
“People are afraid of all the wrong things,” killer Ray (David Harbour) mumbles in response to a Y2K headline in a newspaper.
The societal fears associated with the coming of the 2000s is fertile ground for thematic interpretation, but Frank ignores them, instead serving up images and ideas with all the coherence of a chopped salad. The idea is jettisoned mid-film for as little reason as it was addressed in the first place.
“A Walk Among the Tombstones” joins Liam Neeson’s wheel-house of fallen macho expatriates, inhabiting a drab world lacking import and suspense. The biggest mystery the film proposes is why an esteemed actor continues to exorcise his personal demons in works of overwhelming mediocrity.