ICYMI: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
If you’re anything like me, you too burst out into uncontrollable laughter when you saw the trailer for Cold Pursuit aka Taken 8. And maybe you too got lucky and caused your fellow theatre goers to guffaw along. Suffice to say, Liam Neeson has garnered a new movie going audience as an ass-kicking senior with a particular set of skills. And far be it from Mr. Neeson to not give his audience what they want. From the Taken series to Unknown to The Grey to Non-Stop to Run All Night to The Commuter, Liam Neeson is seeing no shortage of action roles for the “pushing retirement set.” And while it is easy to take pot shots I would be remiss if I did not heap sufficient praise on the one film that seems to have slipped through the cracks.
2014’s A Walk Among The Tombstones is modern day hard-boiled detective noir. Adapted from the work of renown crime writer Lawrence Block, writer-director Scott Frank finds the perfect actor in Liam Neeson to bring fictional shady gumshoe Matthew Scudder to life. The previous attempt was the colossal mess that was 1986’s 8 Million Ways to Die with legendary Hal Ashby behind the camera and Oscar winner Jeff Bridges’ talents wasted. Thankfully, Scott Frank seems to have been given full reign to bring the gritty and gothic world of Matthew Scudder to life. Frank is best known for his screenwriting, having adapted both Get Shorty and Out of Sight. He also made an impressive directorial debut with The Lookout (which I will write about in the near future).
The film starts in 1991 as we see the fateful day where Scudder, still on the force, finally hit rock bottom. The film then moves to 1999 (aka Y2K hysteria) and we see a weathered and surprisingly philosophical Scudder staying sober and trying to make amends by helping those in trouble. He works unlicensed, or as he describes, “I do favors for people, and they give me gifts.” He’s “hired” to look into the kidnapping and murder of a drug dealer’s wife. Scudder ends up on the trail of a pair of sociopaths (one played by a pre-Stranger Things David Harbour) who specialize in kidnapping the family members of criminals, since the criminals are highly reluctant to contact the authorities.
This may sound formulaic but director Frank brings Matthew Scudder’s world to life in all of its grief, darkness and endless shadows. This adaptation is probably closer to the vision that Hal Ashby had in 1986. Per the recent documentary Hal, Ashby wanted to focus on Scudder’s battle with alcohol and his daily struggles while the studio wanted more action. This probably explains why that film was such a mess, especially once Ashby was fired in post-production. But filmmaker Scott Frank is thankfully free of such interference and the audience is easily absorbed into this criminal world and its many layers.
As for Scudder’s cinematic embodiment, this is one of Neeson’s best performances. You may think you are seeing another take on Taken but there’s more on display here. We see him in action but also see what happens next when he takes time to reflect and understand the consequences of his choices. We also see his paternal side when he looks out for a homeless teen (Brian “Astro” Bradely) who becomes his eager sidekick. Neeson navigates this world as a man who has seen too much but who avoids apathy and is willing to keep moving in hopes of some sense of redemption.
So while I will unapologetically pass on Cold Pursuit, I will always be on the lookout for Liam Neeson’s next effort to stretch beyond his mere “ass-kicking” persona. And if hard-boiled film noir is your taste, then A Walk Among Tombstones is definitely a must-see.