A Walk Among the Tombstones could have been - indeed, should have been - one of those great 1970s B-series thrillers Don Siegel knew so well how to do, since that is so clearly where veteran screenwriter Scott Frank's heart is at. I, for once, am glad of it; I pretty much grew up watching them and it's a genre that has gotten in short supply over the years, and it's the sort of film that Mr. Frank goes for here, working in the type of noir-ish, disenchanted detective stories that made his name as a screenwriter (like Kenneth Branagh's underrated Dead Again and Steven Soderbergh's career rebirth Out of Sight). A Walk Among the Tombstones carries that sort of blue-collar grittiness, a downbeat masculinity and no-nonsense attitude that uses genre tropes as its strengths, using them as a narrative shorthand that avoids redundant or superfluous exposition.
It's the second Hollywood attempt to bring to the screen novelist Lawrence Block's damaged private eye Matt Scudder after an ill-fated 1985 adaptation transplanted to California and scripted by Oliver Stone and directed by the late Hal Ashby. Mr. Frank returns the hero to the novelist's New York setting and has Scudder, an ex-alcoholic who left the NYPD and survives as an off-the-books, unlicensed investigator, hired to find out who killed the wife of a drug dealer, discovering it was the work of psychotic killers who are targeting drug dealers by kidnapping their wives and demanding ransom with no intention of releasing the women alive. The film thus becomes a morality play centred around a questioning private investigator: does the immorality of making your money selling drugs to innocent people trump the punishment meted out by self-appointed guardians of morality that are targeting innocents as well? (It's certainly no accident that, in Mr. Frank's telling, there are absolutely no women in sight; this is a purely male universe where women enter at their own peril.)
That the dilemma is acutely felt by a man with moral failings of his own, and underlined by Mr. Frank's measured, serious tone, makes A Walk Among the Tombstones more layered than most standard thriller fare, as well as occasionally more heavy-handed: confirming what his previous directing job, 2006's The Lookout, suggested, what works in the written page as necessary exposition or process doesn't necessarily provide a motion picture with consistency of rhythm and tone, the director's moody, greyish tone and workmanlike illustrative handling occasionally dragging a bit too much, unable to propel the plot forward with the urgency demands. What Mr. Frank is, though, is a very fine director of actors, and Liam Neeson, a fine actor in his own who has become one of the most unlikely action heros of the last few years after the success of Taken, dons Scudder's world-weary coat to perfection, anchoring the film with a measured, expertly judged performance that helps make up for the longueurs.
Still, A Walk Among the Tombstones is a fine example of a mid-list genre film like they don't make anymore - and it leaves you asking why is it they don't.
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES
Cast Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Brian Bradley, Mark Consuelos
Director and screenwriter Scott Frank; based on the novel A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block; cinematographer Mihai Malamare Jr. (colour, widescreen); composer Carlos Rafael Rivera; designer David Brisbin; costumes Betsy Heimann; editor Jill Savitt; producers Danny de Vito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Brian Oliver and Tobin Armbrust; production companies Exclusive Media Group, Jersey Films and Double Feature Films in association with Cross Creek Pictures, Manu Propia Entertainment, 1984 Private Defense Contractors, The Traveling Picture Show Company and Free State Pictures
Screened October 3rd 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 2, Lisbon (distributor press screening)