“A Walk Among the Tombstones” isn’t the big, super-graphic, non-stop shoot-’em-up that Liam Neeson fans had been hoping for (but were mostly deprived of) in the “Taken” movies. It’s something surprisingly better: a moody, sometimes disturbing noir thriller that hews closer to David Fincher than it does to Luc Besson.
Though the body count isn’t as high as most films in the star’s recent wave of action flicks (I could probably count the number of bullets that are discharged in this film on two hands), the stakes are far more tangible, and the retribution much more gruesome.
On paper, Neeson’s character, Detective Matt Scudder (who was made famous in a series of novels by Lawrence Block), looks like an extension of his alcoholic air marshal in this year’s “Non Stop”. After a fatal shoot-out in the streets of Brooklyn, the brooding cop, sporting Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul goatee from “Batman Begins”, joins AA and quits the police force (there’s even an ex-wife mentioned for good measure).
On screen, though, Neeson mostly transcends the clichés associated with the “tortured ex-cop”. After eight years of sobriety, Scudder, now an unlicensed, clean-shaven private eye, is called on by drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) to find the men who abducted his wife and cut her into pieces, despite having been paid a ransom. At first reluctant, Scudder investigates and finds himself on the trail of two sadistic psychopaths (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) who target the wives and girlfriends of high-level narcotics dealers.
Scudder’s first big break in the case comes from the groundskeeper of a cemetery (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), where one of the bodies had been found dismembered and floating in a pond. After Scudder discovers that he’s involved, the weak-willed man coughs up a vague location, the name “Ray”, and then takes a ten-story swan dive into the roof of a car (“What gave me away?”, the guy asks before jumping, to which Neeson replies: “Everything. You’re a weirdo.”)
“Tombstones” takes place in 1999, and screenwriter/director Scott Frank’s (2007’s “The Lookout”) style harks back to atmospheric psychological thrillers of that era like “Seven”, where the creaky, shadowy settings were enough to give you the heebee-jeebees. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. looms over his subjects like an apparition, as Scudder’s investigation takes him to some haunting Brooklyn locales (there’s something inherently chilling about a character perusing newspaper articles on a Microfiche in an old, dark library during a thunderstorm), and vertigo-inducing camera angles and tracking shots occasionally recall the more macabre works of early Brian De Palma.
The script only loses its grim focus every now and again: One side story showcases a great young talent named Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley (“Earth to Echo”), who plays Scudder’s unlikely teenage sidekick TJ. He’s present in a lot of situations that would have been far more convincing without a kid’s involvement — this isn’t a Roland Emmerich movie, after all — but he’s a highlight when assisting Scudder in his investigation, namely with technology that seems to be beyond the ex-cop’s stubbornly old-school scope of knowledge. Bradley’s performance is skillfully nuanced, and it almost makes you forgive the old “I’m coming with you!” schtick that so many writers feel compelled to ruin their movies with.
But if you’re going to buy a ticket, buy it for David Harbour, who plays one of the creepiest serial killers since Buffalo Bill. “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a dark, realistic thriller that gets to the payoff rather circuitously; its aim, I suppose, is to depict how sloppy and unpredictable such a situation could really play out. This might come at the expense of some viewers, who are hoping for more of Neeson’s trademark blend of jiu-jitsu and lightning quick trigger speed. But don’t worry, “Taken 3” is right around the corner.