“You need help, man.”
Those words, uttered early on in A Walk Among the Tombstones, apply not just to Matt Scudder, the alcoholic cop played by Liam Neeson, but to Neeson himself. An adaptation of the Lawrence Block novel of the same name, Tombstones, written and directed by Scott Frank, isn’t bad — but it sure seems like Neeson has better things to do with his time.
Like the start of a straightforward joke, A Walk Among the Tombstones begins in New York City, 1991, with Neeson’s Scudder walking into a bar. He orders a coffee and two shots, and settles into his usual booth, skirting the line between buzzed and buzzed. The joke ends when three more men enter the bar and pop the bartender with a shotgun. Drunken Scudder springs to life and out into the streets, exchanging bullets with the criminals, ending two of their lives — and, in a way, ending his own life as well.
A Walk Among Tombstones isn’t bad — but it sure seems like Neeson has better things to do with his time.
Eight years pass. It’s 1999. The threat of Y2K looms large over the world. But it doesn’t loom large over Scudder. He barely uses technology. If he needs to make a phone call, he uses the pay phone. He doesn’t need Internet to tell him where to eat. He has his neighborhood diner to rely on. Scudder is a man of simple pleasures and tastes. He no longer drinks. He’s no longer a cop. Scudder works as an unlicensed investigator, taking on jobs in exchange for favors.
Enter Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a well-to-do Brooklyn drug dealer who needs Scudder’s help. His wife has been killed, and he wants Scudder to find the men, and help him seek revenge. Initially reluctant, Scudder finds himself drawn to the case when he learns more about the grisly nature of the crime. The search for Mrs. Kristo’s killers plunges Scudder into darker depths than he’s ever experienced, certainly since his time working for the NYPD. A literal walk among tombstones sounds like a walk in the park compared to what Scudder’s about to encounter.
It doesn’t take long for the question of “who killed Kenny’s wife?” to fade away, however. The film is less of a whodunnit and more of a psychological thriller, examining the minds and actions of broken people, raising questions about vengeance and justice, about how far a person can be pushed before breaking beyond repair — and what that broken person is capable of.
Interesting questions indeed, but they fall flat when asked by the snoozy Scudder. Neeson sleep-walks through the role. It’s not the same tough-guy performance he puts forth in Taken. Comparisons between Tombstones and Taken are inevitable, but unfair, even if there is a scene where Scudder tough-talks a villain over the phone, Bryan Mills style. Where Mills had Terminator-level kill-skills and action-movie energy, Scudder is subdued, disinterested and flat. He relies on only three skills as an investigator: patience, instincts, and a strong bladder. That combination makes the character good at his job, but a bit of a snore to watch.
The supporting cast doesn’t fair much better. As Kenny, Stevens shakes his Downton Abbey pretty boy image, complete with a heavy Brooklyn accent. The performance is transformative enough to prove Stevens has some chops, but the role itself is bone-dry. The opposite is true of TJ, an inner-city youth with detective dreams of his own, played by X-Factor rapper Brian “Astro” Bradley. TJ’s proficiency with technology and his budding friendship with Scudder take up much of the film’s runtime, but Bradley can’t sell the character. There’s no chemistry between Scudder and TJ, and that’s a problem, considering it’s the emotional core of the film.
But there’s something admirable in the way A Walk Among the Tombstones moves, in the world it inhabits. It’s slow, deliberate. It takes its time getting to the point. It’s not always engaging, but it’s often beautiful, thanks to The Master veteran Mihai Malaimare, Jr.’s work as cinematographer. There’s something alluring about the look and feel of this “old” New York, if not necessarily its human population.
That’s the problem, unfortunately. While Tombstones isn’t a misfire, it’s dragged down by one-note characters and stories, and a disinterested performance from the leading man. Neeson’s work here makes the whole thing amount to little more than a shrug. Could be better. Could be worse.