Film review: Liam Neeson moves away from the gruff hero bit in A Walk Among the Tombstones

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In A Walk Among the Tombstones, Liam Neeson takes a new approach to the aging tough guy role. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures In A Walk Among the Tombstones, Liam Neeson takes a new approach to the aging tough guy role. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Having spent most of the last decade punching wolves and shooting whomever in pursuit of something or other, Liam Neeson’s career resurgence has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, he’s remained relevant in a genre that usually condemns talented performers to straight-to-DVD purgatory. On the other hand, there is now a very strong mold for him to break, now that an entire generation of filmgoers knows him more as the man with a “particular set of skills” than as Oskar Schindler, Michael Collins, or Rob Roy.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is an attempt to steer Neeson’s career in a different direction while it still capitalizes on the gruff, no-bullshit, bizarro ’90s Harrison Ford niche he’s filled since 2008. Neeson stars as former alcoholic New York cop turned sober semi-legal private investigator Matthew Scudder, the central character of many Lawrence Block novels (whose last appearance on the big screen was in 1986’s atrocious 8 Million Ways to Die starring Jeff Bridges). We first meet Scudder in 1991, when he gets into an off-duty shoot-out in the midst of a drinking binge. Fast forward to 1999, and Scudder has given up both badge and booze to a life of not-quite-crime, performing no-questions-asked tasks and solving problems for people who would prefer to remain off the police radar. It’s at this point in his career that Scudder is approached by drug trafficker Kenny Kristo to locate the men who abducted his wife, then killed her after collecting the ransom. Along the way, he becomes a makeshift mentor to a homeless teen named TJ with a detective’s instinct of his own.

Every criticism you will hear or read about A Walk Among the Tombstones is completely true. It isn’t enough of a departure for Neeson to be seen as altogether different from the characters he played in Taken or The Grey. Writer-director Scott Frank’s grisly fascination with the killers’ perversions and sadistic cruelty toward women borders on perverse itself. Giving the killers scenes shown entirely from their point of view sucks some of the mystery out of Scudder’s pursuit. The film also has a curious way of sabotaging its own momentum with predictability and completely avoidable clichés, best exemplified by an extended voiceover that forces a sloppy 12-step metaphor over a situation that would have been much more interesting on its own. Every attempt at stylization falls flat on its face. And the abundance of limp Y2K jokes would even feel forced in an Adam Sandler movie.

But if you can get past everything that’s wrong with it, there is a life to this film that makes it stand apart. Scudder’s brand of detective work, as a private investigator to the criminal world, is a lot of fun to watch in action. Neeson’s onscreen presence may be of the same tone we’re used to, but in this context, its familiarity with a dash of unpredictability is exactly what makes this former cop who isn’t beholden to any law enforcement procedure come to life. His mentorship to TJ is formulaic and Frank chooses strange words to put in the mouth of newcomer Brian “Astro” Bradley, but the chemistry between the actors carries it through. And though it plays by genre rules, after a certain point, the opportunities for audience predictions run out as genuine suspense over what might happen next takes over.

A Walk Among the Tombstones isn’t the first of its kind. Hell, it’s not even the first attempt at a suspense franchise by an Irish actor this month (Pierce Brosnan’s The November Man). But if Neeson is in fact looking to enter the next stage of his career, this film is as good a capstone to his action hero days as he could ask for.

Playing this week

Boyhood
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Chef
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Dolphin Tale 2
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The Drop
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

Guardians of the Galaxy
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The Hundred-Foot Journey
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

If I Stay
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Let’s Be Cops
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The Maze Runner
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

No Good Deed
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

The November Man
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

This Is Where I Leave You
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Tusk
Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6

When the Game Stands Tall
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

Movie houses

Regal Downtown Mall Cinema 6
979-7669

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
244-3213