We’ve reached peak Liam Neeson. The Irish actor – who is three years away from being able to get social security – had four live action and two animated roles in 2014, has already had one movie released in 2015, and has another about to hit theaters shortly. All of this is due to the phenomenal success of 2008’s Taken, but since then the man hasn’t had much time to take a breath between roles. Unfortunately audiences, perhaps overloaded by Neeson, skipped one of the best films he’s made in this action run. Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones is a smart thriller that casts Neeson as Lawrence Block’s great detective Matt Scudder, and has him going up against two terrifying serial killers.
The film opens in flashback in 1991, to what may be the most important day in Scudder’s life. After downing two shots, he ends up in pursuit of three armed robbers, but the film elides the most important detail. Cut to eight years later, and Scudder is now going to Alcoholics Anonymous, and working as a sort of private detective. He doesn’t have a PI license, but he does investigations for friends who repay him in favors. Fellow AA member Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook) asks Matt to meet with his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), who needs some help.
Kenny recently paid two men a ransom for his kidnapped wife, but his wife was murdered and the killers absconded with the money. Kenny wants revenge. Matt has no interest at first, though Kenny lays out all the details in a way that suck Scudder in. Matt investigates to see if there are other victims with similar M.O.’s and gets help from a kid named T.J. (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley). It turns out there are two previous victims, and Scudder is able to get close to one suspect who would rather commit suicide than cross his partners. Eventually the two killers (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) find their next victim and Matt gets involved in the hopes of stopping them before they kill again.
Writer/director Scott Frank is one of the great adapters of mystery novels of our time. He was the writer behind both Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty and Out of Sight, and also Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, and here he shows that he’s a master at knowing how to translate a book to the big screen. Though the killers are the nasty types that became oversaturated in pop culture after the success of The Silence of the Lambs, Frank avoids spending much time with the killers, basically getting any murder out of the way in the opening minutes and focusing on the procedural side of the case.
And what’s great is how all the pieces come together, how Scudder’s investigation and how he works tracks in the movie. You can see all the pieces come together. It’s a witty film. How witty? It’s got a precocious kid character in the movie and that never comes across as terrible. That’s skill. Perhaps the 1999 setting could have served a greater purpose other than a signifier, but it seems Frank was after the final shots of the movie that portend the darkness that would come to the film’s New York setting. Perhaps.
It’s also a one of the best roles of late for Neeson. The actor, who obvious has been through some rough times, knows how to wear the inherent sadness but also the stability of the character. He’s figured out how to keep going, but he’s also a little dead inside, and when he’s got a gun on him, he doesn’t even blink. He’s not dead, but not quite alive, though he’s driven to save people just the same. There’s more nuance here than most of the action roles he takes, and that’s also one of the things that makes it fascinating, it’s a performance with nuance while also satisfying the sort of “dad movie” charms of a film like this.
Tombstones didn’t set the box office on fire, and is one of Neeson’s rare misfires of late. As with any failure, there are ways to see how it didn’t connect (it’s not a simplistic as many of Neeson’s hits, it is a serial killer film a little late in cycle, the title), but it deserves to be discovered on home video. Or perhaps it will fall into a healthy cable cycle, and find the audience it deserves.
Universal’s Blu-ray comes with a DVD and digital copy, while the film is presented widescreen (2.35:1) in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. The transfer is excellent, as to be expected. Supplements are weak with the disc only offering two featurettes “A Look Behind the Tombstones” (12 min.) and “Matt Scudder: Private Eye” (6 min.). Both draw heavily on interviews with the film’s producers, and offer a bunch of quick soundbites about the making of the movie. The latter is slightly better if only because it gets more info out of author Lawrence Block.