New Movie Review: “A Walk Among the Tombstones”

Those going into this new Liam Neeson film expecting “Taken 3” will be sorely disappointed, while those wanting something with a bit more substance will also be left hanging. To put it plainly, this pulpy, vaguely noir-ish movie isn’t really sure what it wants to be, and therein lies the problem.

No one can be blamed for thinking this would be a “Taken” wannabe, since all the trailers shamelessly marketed it as such by piecing together the bits that seemed the most bad-ass, and playing up the kidnapped wife element. But the film tries to venture into much more disturbing territory, ultimately failing because of the overabundance of clichés. I had hoped that the line “stay in the car,” would be coming close to retirement, but this movie proves that it is still alive and kicking.

The plot: It’s New York 1999 (cue the fun Y2K references.) Neeson plays retired police officer turned private detective Matt Scudder. Matt doesn’t really have much of a life to speak of, but he does attend AA meetings as his personal atonement for the accident which led him to quit the police force years earlier. When a drug trafficker asks for Matt’s help finding the people responsible for kidnapping and murdering his wife, Matt is initially reluctant, but ends up taking the job anyway. He soon comes to realize that the assignment is much gnarlier than it seems.

There are so many issues with the plot that it’s hard to know where to start. The idea of Scudder as a recovering alcoholic is a good one, but ends up being pretty pointless since there are no scenes of him even being tempted by alcohol. It serves basically as a reference point for a monotone recitation of the twelve sober steps late in the film.

The villains are awful. In spite of the fact that the filmmakers decked them out with a full kit of standard pervert tools, including a shady-looking van, they come across as having zero real motive for picking the targets that they do, beyond just the desire to slice and dice, and no real backstory either. Yes, the plot tries to explain that they select victims who are tied to top drug kingpins, so as to make the greatest profit, but this is terribly flimsy. One assumes that people who make their living peddling drugs would have managed to stay at the top of their game by surrounding themselves and their loved ones with multiple security guards, or at least some sort of rudimentary household alarm system. This film literally includes a scene where the two bad guys simply walk into the house of the drug dealer, tase his dog, tase his daughter, carry her out of the house and into their van, all while completely avoiding any sort of detection.

T.J., the young homeless boy whom Scudder befriends, is well-played by Brian “Astro” Bradley, but saddled with predictable lines and god-awful clichés. Is anyone surprised when the smart-aleck kid ends up in the hospital and the nurse tells Scudder that he has sickle cell anemia? T.J.’s main function is to imbue Neeson’s character with humanity, and also to hint broadly to the audience through multiple Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade references, that this is supposed to be a noir detective movie. Does anyone watching this movie even know who those characters are? There are some really cool 70’s era camera angles, and the overall gritty feel of the movie is nice – all monotone grays and fog.

As for Liam Neeson himself, he could easily play this same character type for the rest of his career and do just fine. He gets a few good one-liners, growls over the phone menacingly once or twice, and walks away with his dignity intact. His Scudder is a quieter force than the character he played in the “Taken” films – and more interesting as well.  It is however, disappointing that in a movie where you fully expect to see Neeson kick ass, he ends up being on the receiving end of the beatdowns more often than not.

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