Movie review: It's worth taking A Walk Among the Tombstones | Arts

Movie review: It's worth taking A Walk Among the Tombstones

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A Walk Among the Tombstones
★★★★
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While taking A Walk Among the Tombstones, the engraved names you’ll encounter include Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer. They’re the not-so-thinly veiled literary inspirations for author Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, an alcoholic NYPD cop who accidentally causes the death of a young girl during a shootout with a trio of armed robbers. This origin scene, set in November, 1992, is the exhilarating cold open to director Scott Frank’s hardboiled crime thriller.

Fast-forward to November, 1999 and Scudder (Liam Neeson) has quit the force and lives a kind of purgatory existence in Hell’s Kitchen as an unlicensed private investigator. He’s an anachronism in a society on the precipice of transformation. As Scudder painstakingly sifts through microfilm at the public library looking at newspaper archives, a street smart youth named T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley) instantly finds the desired information using a computer connected to the Internet. Cell phones exist, but good and bad guys alike still frequent pay phones. Y2K fear is ubiquitous. The Twin Towers are still standing.

Against this backdrop, Scudder is summoned to the posh townhome of Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and The Guest), a drug trafficker whose wife was kidnapped and butchered by a couple of psychopaths despite Kenny paying a $400,000 ransom. Kristo wants answers and vengeance, and he convinces Scudder to help him find both.

Scudder’s sleuthing eventually uncovers several similar slayings involving the family of drug dealers, culminating with the kidnapping of the 14-year-old daughter of Yuri (Sebastian Roché), a middle-class Russian cocaine trafficker. Scudder toes a thin ethical line throughout, acting in service to drug kingpins in order to root out a darker evil.

Frank’s last directorial feature film was The Lookout, a greatly underappreciated crime drama released seven years ago. Frank casts similar dark shadings over A Walk Among the Tombstones, adapted from Block’s 10th Matt Scudder novel but incorporating many of the character’s establishing traits. The result is a gritty, cynical neo-noir that’s The Big Sleep meets Se7en.

Frank’s screenplay occasionally gets mired in atmospherics to the detriment of narrative progression. Subplots about T.J. having sickle cell anemia, his penchant for comic book drawings and being beaten for a pinched handgun don’t amount to anything meaningful, and the identities and motives of the villains are revealed a tad too soon. Also, the storyline teems with an undercurrent of misogyny, chiefly the brutal treatment of its abundant female victims.

But while Neeson threatens baddies over the telephone, this isn’t another Taken. Scudder is more complex and haunted than that film's protagonist, more antihero than vigilante superhero. Both his Twelve Step sobriety and moral compass are sustained by him still wanting to save the world from its demons, even if it’s too late for himself.

Old-style detective series are among the tombstones of modern moviemaking. Hopefully, audiences get to take another walk with Neeson and Matt Scudder and see where it leads.

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