A Walk Among the Tombstones

Posted: September 25, 2014 in Film reviews
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Directed by Scott Frank. Starring Liam Neeson.

It’s New York in 1999. When his wife is kidnapped and horribly murdered drug dealer (sorry drug trafficker) Kenny Kristo (Downton’s Dan Stevens) hires Matt Scudder (Neeson) to track down the perpetrators of the crime so he can exact his revenge.

Scudder was a cop until a shootout went wrong eight years ago, now he’s a recovering alcoholic who works as an unlicensed private investigator, doing ‘favours’ for people. Initially he refuses the job, but is persuaded to change his mind by the horrific nature of the crime.

As his investigations progress it quickly becomes apparent that the two killers have struck before and that they will strike again. When another victim is kidnapped Scudder knows he doesn’t have long to prevent her suffering the same horrific fate as the previous victims.

In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that I am a long-time fan of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels, so from the moment I first heard about this adaptation I was looking forward to it, figuring at the very least it had to be better and more faithful than the only previous attempt to translate Scudder to the big screen, the not terribly good 1986 effort Eight Million Ways to Die which featured Jeff Bridges as Scudder and transferred the action from New York to California.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is several orders of magnitude better than Eight Million Ways to Die, and Neeson is a far better Scudder (though his accent takes a little getting used to). The adaptation is faithful, although it does play a little fast and loose with Block’s books, though not in any blasphemous manner, so Scudder’s girlfriend, Elaine is missing, though she’s in the book, and we meet Scudder’s protégé TJ, a young black man living on the streets, even though he doesn’t actually turn up until a later book. Everything else is present and correct; the tragedy that haunts Scudder, his low rent hotel room home, his propensity to visit AA meetings and the fact he carries a lot of quarters around with him and makes use of a lot of payphones.

It’s difficult to call it a true period piece, New York of 1999 is faithfully recreated, but it isn’t that different to now, the mobile phones are a little funny looking, and the computers very funny looking, and Scott Frank does overdo the mentions of Y2K, it’s funny at first but becomes tiresome. Other than this it could be 2014.

The film is brutal, with several scenes of rape and torture, albeit much of the violence is implied—which kinda makes it all the more horrible—and it could be argued the film has a slight misogynistic feel, there are no major female characters, pretty much the only female characters of note are victims. It’s a shame as Block’s written some decent female characters over the years, and this is where, perhaps, the inclusion of Elaine might have helped, although from a plot perspective TJ is probably more useful.

However grim the film is, however, it’s also hopeful. People might see just another Liam Neeson gritty thriller, but as Scudder he’s called upon to express a greater range of emotion than, for example, when he plays the man with a certain set of skills in the Taken films. Scudder is a broken man, yet also a noble one, worthy of our empathy. Is he a tough guy, yes. Is he handy with his fists and a gun, again yes, but given the hardboiled nature of the film that’s hardly unexpected.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is probably not the most original of hardboiled detective tales, but for me what it does it does very well, the bad guys are sickeningly nasty, but on the whole the denizens of Scudder’s world are treated fairly, and the film is rarely judgemental about drug dealers, addicts and the other broken people that Scudder encounters.

It will be too dark for some, and the languid nature of Scudder’s investigation may frustrate those expecting high octane car chases and multiple gun battles, but for me this is a solid and very faithful adaptation of a great book, a call back to the classic era of detective films—albeit with a more modern exploration of violence—and I’d be quite happy to see Neeson return in the role of Scudder.

Like I say, I’m biased but I really liked it.

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