A Walk Among The Tombstones is NOT the movie you’re expecting, mainly because it’s a damn fine criminal drama. Despite coming off a few lackluster thrillers after a meteoric action-hero rise, Liam Neeson has rediscovered an immensely intimidating spirit-animal that was first asserted in Pierre Morel’s Taken, rightfully reclaiming a place among today’s Expendables-aged ass-kickers. Even though Non-Stop doesn’t get the credit it deserves (yup, standing strong on that one), Liam has found redemption in the form of a lesser-known novel franchise featuring a recovered alcoholic P.I. named Matt Scudder, thanks to writer/director Scott Frank no less! You know Scott Frank – the guy who scripted Marley & Me in 2008 then resurfaced in 2013 to pen The Wolverine? A Walk Among The Tombstones shouldn’t work based on Hollywood’s recent track record, yet this could be Neeson’s most gripping performance in years – something Frank doesn’t waste on stereotypical action sequences and Michael-Bay-inspired explosions.
I’ve already introduced the character of Matt Scudder, a Private Investigator some eight years sober after a robbery gone awry at a local bar he was visiting. Now spending his days clean and focused, he’s enticed by a fellow AA member to hear out a job that his brother Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) requests Scudder’s help with, something he wants kept off the books. Scudder meets with Kenny and hears a tragic story about how his wife was kidnapped and even though a hefty ransom was paid, the bastards still executed their hostage for kicks. Going off his gut reaction, Scudder realizes Kenny makes a living trafficking drugs, and decides the case isn’t for him, but Kenny seeks out the renegade detective and expresses how the only thing left living for is swift justice. Scudder caves after hearing Kenny’s emotional scarring, accepting a job that spans much farther than one dead wife.
Credit everyone involved with cobbling together a hard-nosed crime drama that’s succinctly gritty and downright tense, evoking rich source material ripe with intrigue. So many copycat films have been paraded out over the years, landing a famous lead actor just to have them flail about and get in shootouts, but A Walk Among The Tombstones remains solely about Scudder’s investigation while peppering in action when necessary. Scott Frank only cues up graphic scenes to provide an impactful punch, swaying Scudder’s mind through human emotion and vile deeds. There’s no level of flamboyance needed, nothing grandiose to provide momentary distractions, because we’re hooked instantaneously by a sting of murders worth solving.
More than anything, A Walk Among The Tombstones features fantastic work from almost every major player, from Liam Neeson’s heroic investigator to Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley’s sassy wunderkind sidekick who follows Scudder around in hopes that he’ll one day become a hero in his own right. Before expanding any further down the cast list, the chemistry between Neeson and Astro strikes a charming chord that’s both paternal and mentoring, and their interactions only increase with humor as T.J. (Astro) expresses his “damn the man” conspiracy theories that want to keep African Americans in-check. Neeson’s ability to react with an understanding yet delightfully perplexed glance cement an unlikely friendship that plays out graciously on screen, becoming an enticing buddy-cop duo in rare form.
Despite having a companion, Neeson owns every single pulse-pounding minute on camera, digging from depths we haven’t seen in some time. “Commanding” isn’t the only descriptor that comes to mind, but it’s absolutely the first when thinking of Matt Scudder’s persona. Never quick to draw his weapon, Neeson once again playfully portrays a character who can disable henchmen simply through badassery and persuasion. In one dynamite exchange, he simply coerces a suspect to drop his knife by detailing exactly how he’ll disable the fool and stab him silly. The moment raises hair, acting as a flag to signal Neeson’s grand return, and there’s never a moment where we’re not hypnotized by Scudder’s ability to blend tactical action with intelligence and moxy – he’s a franchise-worthy detective I can only hope we see Neeson return to play again. This is the Neeson we love, ready to kick-ass but never really having too, more determined to bring forth a full character worth rooting for. His career was never in jeopardy, but it’s refreshing to see such life coming from a phenomenal actor who’s been stuck in a generic rut as of late.
Equally impressive are David Harbour and Adam David Thompson, Neeson’s diabolical foes who display an unnerving amount of pleasure throughout the deadly cat-and-mouse chase. While Thompson utilizes a stone-cold stare that mirrors a soulless existence, it’s Harbour who does most of the talking, and he does so with a charisma akin to the sickest, most despicable deviant known to man. Harbour’s turn is disgusting, making your skin crawl with every excited whisper, yet without reaching levels of psychotic enjoyment, A Walk Among The Tombstones would have lost an unsettling “WOW” factor that elevates the criminal undertones Frank grasps for. Harbour’s character will make stomachs churn and blood boil, only because we’ll never understand the mentality of a human who can happily mutilate a helpless female – getting off on the struggle, no doubt – and then make a plate of sausages for breakfast the next day, never flinching or reflecting. A psychologist’s dream and a woman’s worst nightmare, it’s David Harbour who strikes the deepest nerves while walking among the tombstones.
I rather liked The Lookout, another Scott Frank directed thriller, but A Walk Among The Tombstones only makes me wonder why there aren’t more directorial listings on his IMDB page. These types of genre films don’t always have to be about whizzing bullets and body counts, because with the right mystery worth solving, those more graphic notes aren’t entirely necessary. Frank accomplishes this, assembling a perfectly-casted criminal dissection that’s loaded with entertainment, memorable characters and haunting dramatics – plus a welcome Liam Neeson returning to glory.
A Walk Among The Tombstones is a hauntingly criminal winner featuring some of Liam Neeson's most memorable work in years - hard-boiled and gritty in all the right ways.