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Review: 'A Walk Among the Tombstones' is the semi-respectable Neeson 2.0 film

Liam Neeson's latest thriller actually has a respected source and writer-director, but it's still very much a Liam Neeson thriller.

Liam Neeson can't wait to shoot someone in "A Walk Among the Tombstones." Credit: Atsushi Nishijima Liam Neeson can't wait to shoot someone in "A Walk Among the Tombstones."
Credit: Atsushi Nishijima

‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’
Director: Scott Frank
Stars: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“A Walk Among the Tombstones” isn’t the darkest of the Liam Neeson 2.0 cinema. It’s more like the most respectable. The former Oskar Schindler isn’t just another gruff AARP-aged ass-kicker but Matthew Scudder, a crime novel favorite chronicled in the books of Lawrence Block. Its director is the respected Scott Frank, who wrote “Out of Sight” and directed the indie thriller “The Lookout.” “Tombstones” gets dark — very, very dark. But is it darker than “The Grey,” in which Neeson only had a death wish for himself (and some wolves)? And is Scudder more troubled than his antihero in “Non-Stop”: an alcoholic who struggles, sloppily, to find a killer on an airplane while pissing off everyone?

“Tombstones” is more modest, content to simply play with audience expectations. It starts off with the usual Neeson shoot-’em-up, but with one difference: He’s drunk. We then suddenly jump eight years — to 1999, as it were — and this alkie cop has turned into a P.I. in AA. Scudder hasn’t left his fetid world, though: He reluctantly takes a job tracking down kidnappers, with two major worries: His new employer is drug kingpin Kenny Krusto (Dan Stevens) and the kidnappers killed the guy’s wife, even after he paid up.

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Former "Downton Abbey" actor Dan Stevens is unexpectedly intense in "A Walk Among the Tombstones." Credit: Atsushi Nishijima Former "Downton Abbey" actor Dan Stevens is unexpectedly intense in "A Walk Among the Tombstones."
Credit: Atsushi Nishijima

This isn’t the usual Neeson-vs.-bad-baddies situation. Scudder knows that he’s essentially being sent to bring back people who will then be gorily avenged. The kidnappers are far from saints; in fact, as it’s revealed earlier than perhaps expected, they’re psychos of unimaginable and viscerally-felt evil. But everyone else is shades of gray. Frank loves writing complex criminal characters, and so Kenny isn’t a typical movie drug lord. Stevens — trying hard to shatter his nice Cousin Matthew on “Downton Abbey” image and succeeding beyond his wildest dreams — gives him a coiled intensity, but also notes of vulnerability. Despite his creepy stillness and highly controlled line readings, he actually seems decent — a man who got in the wrong business, where he learned to project toughness while hiding his true self.

This is still a routine trash mystery, with its share of inane plot twists played as smart. It’s not clear how much the source has been Neesonized; one could even imagine other actors playing Scudder. (Jeff Bridges played him in 1986’s “8 Million Ways to Die,” the curious swan song of Hal Ashby.) Yet Neeson seems to delight in denying his fanbase anticipated Neeson thriller thrills. Scudder talks more than one person out of being given, by him, a good beating; he even gets badly hurt a couple times. The story keeps threatening to give him a sidekick: a homeless black teen (Brian “Astro” Bradley) who helps him out and allows his grouch to play reluctant father figure. But it keeps pulling back on this sentimental thread, mostly letting Scudder stay alone to skulk through this descent into hell.

There’s an old school style at play here, and not always for the best. Setting this in 1999 may require Scudder do some actual snooping and not stare at his phone. But it also yields no shortage of Y2K gags. It may also be responsible for the casual homophobia, when it’s revealed our kidnappers may be gay — the kind of nudging, “well, that explains it” moment done regularly and unthinkingly in a less enlightened age. Then again, “Tombstones” is far from a Charles Bronson vehicle, the breed to which Neeson’s new career has often been compared. It’s an ambivalent look at a character despairing over the profession he chose, even as he can’t think of another way he’d ever live. If it’s still a Liam Neeson movie, it’s one that broadens the genre's range just enough to not completely rework it.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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