MOVIE REVIEW: A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014)
By Michael Arruda
You already know what I’m going to say.
“This movie looks just like TAKEN (2008).”
That’s because that’s what everyone says when you mention A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES.
Yup, Liam Neeson is back in another thriller, in yet another variation of his hit movie TAKEN, this time as a former cop turned private investigator who’s helping other people find their kidnapped loved ones, in the poetically titled A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, and as such, it’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before. The question is, is it any good? Or is the Liam Neeson action-thriller formula finally growing stale?
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES begins in 1991 where New York City cop Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is drinking in a bar when it’s held up by some thugs who shoot the bartender. Bad move when Neeson is in the room. Scudder promptly chases these bad guys through the streets and shoots them all dead. Unfortunately, a stray bullet from his gun kills a young girl.
The action switches to 1999— so we get to re-live the 90s and hear lots of Y2K references—where Scudder is now a private investigator because the pain of killing that little girl was too much for him to bear. He regularly attends AA meetings and has been sober since that fateful day, since he blames the death of that girl on alcohol because he was drunk. Actually, for a drunk guy, he could shoot pretty well as he blew away the robbers with ease, and from a distance.
Anyway, one of the guys he knows through AA, Howie (Eric Nelson), approaches him and tells him his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) needs his help. Scudder agrees to see Kenny and learns that Kenny’s wife was kidnapped and then murdered, chopped up into little pieces, even though Kenny paid the ransom money. Kenny wants Scudder to find the men who did this. It’s obvious to Scudder that Kenny is a drug dealer, and so he declines to take on the case.
But Kenny is persistent and shows up at Scudder’s door with more details of his wife’s kidnapping and subsequent murder, and he leaves a cassette tape with Scudder that the kidnappers sent him, an audio record of the tortures they put his wife through. Scudder listens to the tape, and sickened by the type of monsters these guys obviously are, he changes his mind and decides to take on the case and go after the men who murdered Kenny’s wife.
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES plays out exactly the way you would expect it to.
First off, as you would expect, the best part of this movie is Liam Neeson. Take Neeson out of the equation, and this film just isn’t as good, pure and simple. Sure, it’s nothing we haven’t seen Neeson do before, but he does it so well. He’s a compelling action hero who is believably tough and sincere at the same time. He has a no-nonsense demeanor that penetrates even the most hardened criminal. You have these two sickos who are terrorizing the drug dealing scene by kidnapping and murdering wives and daughters, and they have the drug dealers shaking in their boots, but when Neeson tells these goons to go screw themselves, and that he’s coming after them, they’re suddenly the ones who are trembling. He immediately changes the balance of power, and it’s all very credible.
Neeson is great in these roles, and he’s excellent yet again here as Matt Scudder. This is the second time the character Matt Scudder has appeared in a movie. Jeff Bridges played Scudder in the 80s actioner EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986), a film I probably haven’t seen since 1986. I remember liking it, and I believe it’s the first film in which I saw Andy Garcia, as he played a villainous drug lord. The character of Matt Scudder comes from the series of novels by Lawrence Block.
Neeson isn’t alone either in terms of quality acting performances here. David Harbour and Adam David Thompson both make creepy and formidable adversaries for Scudder. As Ray and Albert, the two sickos who seem to enjoy torturing their victims even more than collecting their money, Harbour and Thompson are two of the better screen villains I’ve seen this year, especially Harbour. These guys both deliver devilishly disturbing performances.
Dan Stevens isn’t bad as victimized drug dealer Kenny Kristo, nor is Eric Nelson as his junkie brother Howie. But the other actor who stands out is Olafur Darri Olafsson as the graveyard caretaker James Loogan. His few scenes are all memorable, as he plays this offbeat guy who you just don’t feel right about. You know there’s just something not quite right about him, or as Neeson’s Scudder says at one point, “You’re a weirdo.” The sequences he shares with Liam Neeson are among my favorite in the movie.
If there’s one thing missing from the cast in this movie, it’s women. There really aren’t any women in this film, other than the victims, and all they get to do is squirm, scream, and then die. The film certainly could have benefitted from some female characters who actually spoke some dialogue!
While writer/director Scott Frank has made a stylish thriller with A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, he does have some issues with pacing, as at times the film slows down, and that’s because Frank’s screenplay makes some odd choices.
There’s a diverting subplot where Scudder befriends a young teen named TJ (Astro) who lives on the streets and has aspirations of becoming a private investigator. Now, the young actor who plays TJ, Astro— Astro? Really?— is fine in the role, but his scenes with Neeson, in fact his entire storyline, seems so out of place in this movie. It just zaps the life out of the plot and kills the movie’s pacing. We go from these intense scenes with killers Ray and Albert to quiet scenes between Scudder and TJ— yawn.
When the movie sticks to the plot of Scudder vs. Ray and Albert, it works and works well, but when it steps away from this intense storyline to see how TJ is doing, it falters. The movie would have been better cutting out this subplot and giving more screen time to Ray and Albert.
Also, as much as I like Neeson, he struggles with a New York accent in this movie. In some scenes, he has the accent—which isn’t very good, by the way— and in others he loses it and sounds like his old self.
I liked A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES because I enjoy watching Liam Neeson in these kinds of movies. Sure, the formula is growing tired, but I’m not at the point yet where I’ve stopped enjoying them because Neeson is still operating at the top of his game.
If you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you won’t be disappointed.
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES isn’t bad. It’s got Neeson and has decent to strong performances by all of the actors involved, and it does have some dark defining moments. It just gets sidetracked by a subplot that kills the momentum the rest of the story builds.
I give it two and a half knives.