*** out of ****
Liam Neeson, a skilled dramatic actor who reinvented himself in his late-50s as a Gaelic Clint Eastwood, plays what on the surface looks like another tough guy role in A Walk Among the Tombstones. But in reality, the film is much more subdued and low-key than the likes of Taken and Non-Stop.
Writer/director Scott Frank (who wrote and directed the terrific but little-seen The Lookout and wrote scripts for Get Shorty and Out of Sight) adapts Lawrence Block’s crime novel about a former cop and recovering alcoholic (Neeson) who works as an unlicensed P.I. in 1999 New York City.
A drug trafficker (Dan Stevens) offers Neeson a substantial sum of money to find the men who kidnapped Stevens’ wife and killed her even though he paid the ransom. This could have easily turned into another fist-a-palooza of fight scenes, car chases, and shootouts, but the movie’s take on being a P.I. is that it involves a lot of grunt work and talking to people, plus a little bit of luck. When asked what a good detective needs, Neeson replies, “A strong bladder.”
On the rare occasions where Neeson has to use violence, it feels like authentic work and not just an invincible hero (like The Equalizer) mowing down all who oppose him. The final shootout is crosscut with Neeson at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, effectively underlining the fact that all violence leaves a mark on a person’s soul, even if it is killing bad guys.
The villains here aren’t evil masterminds; they’re idiots, opportunistic perverts with a vicious streak. While the world is a better place for being rid of them, there’s no stand-up-and-cheer moment in the finale. Frank maintains an underlying tone of sadness and melancholy with both his script and his direction that many crime films fail to attain/
Its understated charms might disappoint people looking for non-stop action and quick cuts, but A Walk Among the Tombstones is the kind of solid, mid-range genre film Hollywood used to make a lot of before the parade of reboots and young adult franchises took over. Even if it fails at the box office, people will find this film eventually.