Liam Neeson Nails Noir with "A Walk Among The Tombstones"

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Liam Neeson in "A Walk Among the Tombstones;"  opens 9/19/14.

Liam Neeson is one cool cat. I enjoyed his work long before “Taken,” but after that gloriously performed throwback to the classic violent revenge films he was a bonafide superstar. Unfortunately for him, he’s dangerously close to being typecast. Whether it be the predictably subpar “Taken 2” or the surprising gem “The Grey,’ Neeson always seems to always play a man with a particular set of skills. “A Walk Among the Tombstones” may not seem all that different on the surface, but if you watch closely there’s a lot more to it than you might think.

Based on best-selling crime novelist Lawrence Block’s book of the same name, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is the story of Matthew Scudder, a man with nothing to lose, an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who sells his services as a detective for hire to often less than reputable clients. He takes on a case involving the kidnapping of a drug trafficker’s wife whom the client already confirmed as having been murdered. The client wants revenge, and Scudder’s motifation seems to be that diehard police mentality to get the scumbag(s) responsible for this heinous crime off the streets.  The trail leads to more crimes involving the women of other shady men and eventually to the kidnapping of the daughter of a Russian mobster. The kidnappers are depraved monsters, chilling in their casual disregard for human life.

That’s as much plot as you need, and while the story is solid for this film’s purpose, where it really shines is in the details. Director and screenwriter Scott Frank, who has written some of my favorite movies such as “Dead Again,” “Minority Report,” and “The Lookout,” which he also directed, smartly turns the film into a character study, starting off with a bang but quickly settling into a slower, more thoughtful pace before cranking things back up at the end. That’s not to say that the majority of the film is all introspective, but most of the violence in the middle comes through flashbacks where the narrative shifts away from Scudder’s point of view to briefly focus on one of the shady clients or the sicko criminals. These scenes also seem a bit more vibrant in terms of their color palette than when the story is focused on Scudder, whose scenes are fairly drab and washed out, lots of gray and sepia tones, giving the film a kind of chronological ambiguity. The film tells you early on that it takes place in 1999—a cab has a “Are you Y2K ready?” advertisement on it and cell phones are present but not so prevalent as they are today. If not for those elements, this could have been set in 1979.

Why does that matter? It may not to an average moviegoer who enjoys Liam Neeson, but it’s touches like that which can make a big difference to fans of crime noir thrillers, and that’s precisely what “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is: pure classic noir. Here’s Neeson’s character, a guy who has good intentions but a multitude of character flaws. He’s got his own code, and it doesn’t always work well with others. His clients are criminals, the criminals he’s after are even worse, and their victims are not entirely innocent, all hallmarks of noir. Rather than wasting time with some femme fatale that would likely not offer much more than a little sexual tension, Frank’s film gives Scudder a boy sidekick whom he takes under his wing. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship—the boy has the modern tech smarts and Neeson has the crimefighting training. Sounds familiar…it seems like there was another story like that, about a crime fighter and a boy sidekick, very dark and firmly crime noir, did okay at the box office, making a few hundred million dollars recently. To tell you the truth, I think this is better than any of the last three Batman films, and Neeson is in those too! Novelists don’t very often get any say in the casting of films based on their work, but Block had Neeson in mind from the start. Harrison Ford was originally attached, and I think it would have been a little jarring, at least to this old Star Wars fan, to see Ford in such a dark film at his age. I realize “Blade Runner” was pretty dark too, but Neeson has become the go to guy for these roles, and he’s darn good at it.

If you’re fans of Neeson, you want be disappointed. If you’re fans of noir, I think you’re going to be elated. I don’t condone Hollywood’s endless parade of remakes but if someone wanted to redo “The Maltese Falcon” I’d pick the team of Scott Frank and Liam Neeson to direct and star. With exquisite cinematography, a strong noir aesthetic, and Neeson doing what he does best, ”A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a must see. If you read other critics’ reviews (and I don’t mind, as long you keep reading mine) you’ll read a few that will whine about the film not rising above the clichés of the genre. Subgenres of any art form are basically clichés, aren’t they? You can’t write a Harlequin romance novel without a Fabio beefcake character, can you? Can you do a space opera blockbuster that never goes where no man has gone before? If Matthew Scudder seems to have a similar set of particular skills to “Taken’s” Bryan Mills, so be it. Most heroes, even the flawed ones, do. Noir is both a distinctive visual style and a story genre, and this film nails them both. 

5.0 / 5.0