Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is a private dick who works off the books. We’re never told why he chooses to work unlicensed. Maybe to punish himself; to add to his own sense of isolation. Scudder is a former cop, a reformed alcoholic, haunted. Scudder doesn’t carry a gun. In his eyes Scudder does carry Despair. There’s only one moment where he seems relieved, when a killer points a loaded pistol in his face.
The killer is one of two — two wholly depraved serial killers who will take your ransom and still slice your wife into packages small enough to neatly fill a freezer. This is what was done to Kenny Kristo’s (Dan Stevens) wife. Kristol is the kind of heroin trafficker who was devoted to his wife; the kind of guy who hires unlicensed gumshoes for something other than an arrest.
While the action scenes are quite good, they are bookends. In-between is 100 mostly compelling minutes of a smart and determined PI putting the pieces together. At first the pieces all seem to come together a little too easily. How could the cops have missed this? Eventually, though, you begin to realize that this is one of those movie worlds where cops don’t exist, unless they’re corrupt or drunks.
“A Walk Among the Tombstones” is not “Taken.” In mood and tone, it’s much closer to “8MM” (1999) and to Neeson’s own brilliant but underrated existential thriller “The Grey” (2011).
The year is 1999. The world is bleak. The Y2K apocalypse looms. The city is New York, but it’s not the real New York. Giuliani doesn’t exist. David Dinkins still runs things and Disney and Applebee’s haven’t yet moved in.
Neeson, as always, is splendid. Like the Mighty Charles Bronson before him, Neeson’s completely unexpected middle-aged renaissance as an action movie star is a gift from the movie gods. Neeson is the rarest of creatures in the year 2014: a legitimate and legitimately talented movie star who can carry the whole load.
For the life of me, though, I can’t begin to comprehend why writer/director Scott Frank (working off of Lawrence Block’s novel) went the “Cop and a Half” (1993) route. A subplot involving Scudder befriending a homeless black kid named TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) only just barely manages not to careen the whole story over a cliff.
Naturally, TJ is all kinds of clichéd-black-homeless-kid wonderful: wise beyond his years, resourceful, angry but hurting inside. He also gets car doors slammed on him before finishing his belief that “This is bullshit!”
The impulse to humanize Scudder, lighten things up, and offer a little social commentary is a good one. You also have to be grateful this wasn’t done with a love interest. If “Tombstones” had been produced in the year it’s set, 15 years ago, even then this relationship would’ve seemed dated. It’s almost as if Frank dared himself as a director to see if he could pull this off. He does, but there are some close calls.
If you’re looking for an action movie, keep walking. “Tombstones” takes its own sweet time. I was never bored, but did feel the deliberate pace. The tension is ratcheted slowly, which caught me off guard. I love that, and there are few pleasures in cinema that match Neeson giving kidnappers a telephone beating.
Neeson’s scenes with a cemetery groundskeeper played to unsettling perfection by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson could be Exhibit A in why I love the movies.
As dark, brutal and despairing as Scudder’s world is, it and he are compelling enough to make the trip worthwhile. “Tombstones” is also a jarring reminder that a mere 15 years ago — before the rise of the Internet and cell phones — if you so chose, you could still make a living while isolating yourself in America.
Even with a couple of serial killers running amok, the world before social media looks as inviting as Mayberry.
John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC