Looking at an imposing Liam Neeson on the poster for A Walk Among the Tombstones, you’d be forgiven for mentally grouping the film with his past action-star endeavors, including Taken, Unknown and Non-Stop. That was certainly the mistake I made. Neeson, all grizzled machismo and barked one-liners, would surely shock and awe as he used his overpowering authority and very particular set of skills to rid the world of some deserving evildoers.
So imagine my surprise when, while watching A Walk Among the Tombstones, I realized that writer-director Scott Frank, adapting a novel by Lawrence Block, had no interest in delivering another Neeson-powered action extravaganza. What he set his sights on, and what he successfully delivers with the film, is something far more ambitious, interesting and enjoyable. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a hard-boiled crime noir, a dark and disturbing detective story set in a brittle, washed-out version of New York. The gritty, glowering atmosphere is far more important than that Neeson is taking on the starring role, and the pitch-black subject matter indicates that it’s a decidedly serious affair. It’s more pulp than popcorn.
Neeson plays alcoholic ex-cop Matthew Scudder, a troubled and haunted man who moonlights as an unlicensed private investigator. One day, Scudder is approached by a junkie (Boyd Holbrook), who introduces him to his drug-dealer brother Kenny (Dan Stevens). With cold fury in his eyes, Kenny explains that he’s looking for the men who kidnapped his wife, demanded a ransom and then, when paid, returned her dismembered. Scudder takes the case and soon finds himself on the trail of two savage killers whose sadistic crime spree is far from over.
Frank’s script doesn’t get into the motivations of the men Scudder is hunting, suggesting that the most terrifying monsters of all are the ones that can’t be understood. There’s a lot about evil’s true nature in A Walk Among the Tombstones; the film haunts in how plainly it depicts the animalistic cruelty that can be hidden behind a smiling face. The writer-director doesn’t tone down the violence either, which is presented in a stylish, non-explicit but still wholly unsettling manner, and the unrelenting darkness of the material works on philosophical levels as well as narrative ones.
That’s not to say that the story is without its shortcomings. Too often, A Walk Among the Tombstones feels like it’s succumbing to the cliches of its genre, with a wise-cracking sidekick (Brian “Astro” Bradley) never fitting in comfortably due to Scudder’s lone-wolf modus operandi. And some scenes focusing on the killers feel oddly placed, letting some tension escape from what’s otherwise a traditionally effective potboiler.
For the most part, though, Frank has delivered a terrifically gripping thriller. Neeson gives a strong, serious performance that’s well-suited to the vibe that his writer-director is going for, and the absorbing atmosphere is punctuated by some well-executed action sequences that rival those previously mentioned Neeson-led blockbusters.
Universal’s 1080p transfer gives the film the shadowy, noirish edge that Frank intended. Black levels are deep and dominant, skin tones are accurate and there are no errors to report whatsoever. The image clarity is also superb, with harsh and unsparing detail present in everything from Neeson’s craggy visage to the striking graffiti spray-painted across a street fence. Absolutely no complaints.
The same goes for the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, which prioritizes clean, crisp dialogue while still effectively implementing harsher sound effects like barking gunshots or subtler sounds like the hum of a New York street. A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t really swing for the fences in terms of its action, but the audio track is still engaging even when the film is deliberately simmering.
Extras are the weakest part of this Blu-Ray package, unfortunately. All that’s provided are:
- “A Look Behind the Tombstones” (12:08)
- “Matt Scudder: Private Eye” (6:27)
The first featurette is standard behind-the-scenes stuff, incorporating interviews with the cast and crew while splicing in video of the production under way. Frank’s insights center on the moral ambiguity of the characters and the crime-noir feel of his film. The second, the less substantial of the two, finds author Lawrence Block and Frank discussing Scudder as a character and the challenges they faced in bringing him to life. Both seem thrilled that Neeson was cast in the role.
With its strong video and audio, there’s nothing that should prevent crime-noir aficionados from picking up A Walk Among the Tombstones on Blu-Ray. It’s not a perfect film by a long shot, but Frank’s stylish direction and Neeson’s committed performance make it an engrossing and exhilarating watch. I certainly would be open to seeing more movies starring Scudder, though this one’s box office returns may mean that a franchise is unlikely. Regardless, A Walk Among the Tombstones accomplishes much and never loses its compelling sense of darkness. It’s Neeson’s best film since The Grey.
Gritty, grim and gripping, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a fine crime-noir elevated by Neeson's sturdy lead performance.