On the surface, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Scott Frank’s (The Lookout, Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty) adaptation of Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel (the 10th in a long-running series), seems like another late-career, action-hero role for Liam Neeson in the vein of Taken 1-2, Unknown, The Grey, and, most recently, Non-Stop. Neeson brought a sympathetic brand of bruised, noble masculinity to what were otherwise generic action-hero roles. Moviegoers and critics responded favorably, making Neeson an unlikely global box-office star. A Walk Among the Tombstones, however, fails to deliver the other, all-important side of Neeson’s laconic, stoic persona, the action-heroic one. Obsessively focuing on the mechanics of investigation (e.g., trudging from one rundown location to another, interviewing witnesses from various socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities, etc.) over the hand-to-hand combat and the gunplay found in Neeson’s previous action-hero efforts make for a dull, dreary, plodding crime procedural. Far more importantly, A Walk Among the Tombstones is also a repellant, repugnant, and repulsive piece of work.
Almost immediately, A Walk Among the Tombstones descends into sub-’70s/’80s grindhouse-level exploitations when the central plot — the kidnapping, torture, murder, and mutilation of women by a pair of serial sadists/killers — sharpens into focus. A screenwriter first and a director second, Frank repeatedly indulges in the exploitative aspects of the material, relentlessly focusing on a woman — blonde, blue-eyed, the stereotypical representation of American wholesomeness and goodness — tortured by the killers eventually revealed as Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson), two men without last names or backstories (the better for the audience to see them as the living embodiment of pure evil or as inhuman monsters), with the possible exception of (implied) homosexuality, an unsurprising connection given that Block began writing the series in the mid-1970s when homosexuality and violent sexual deviance went hand in hand (wrong, of course, in case there was any doubt). A Walk Among the Tombstones, however, was written almost two decades later. Frank sets most of the action in pre-Y2K 1999.
Frank doesn’t show Ray or Albert’s faces into well into A Walk Among the Tombstones’ plodding, 113-minute running time. At first, they’re either partially seen or out of focus. Practically mute, it almost comes as a shock when he Albert finally speaks and sounds…normal. Ray and Albert, of course, aren’t the focus of A Walk Among the Tombstones, but collectively they’re the catalyst for the plot that eventually ensnares Matthew Scudder (Neeson), a retired NYPD detective turned occasional private investigator. A recovering alcoholic deeply traumatized by an incident only partially revealed in the 1991-set prologue, Scudder initially turns the substantial offer of cash from a drug dealer, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), in exchange for discovering the whereabouts of the two men (Ray and Albert) who kidnapped and murdered his wife. A typically reluctant hero, Scudder initially refuses Kristo’s offer (based, we can assume, on Kristo’s chosen profession), only relenting when Kristo makes a genuine, heartfelt plea to Scudder’s humanity.
A technophobe with an aversion to pre-millennial computers and cellphones, Scudder relies on the standard tools of pre-millennial detectives: Footwork (Frank pads out A Walk Among the Tombstones’ already bloated running time with endless shots of Scudder…walking), face-to-face interviews, and libraries for analog research (including micro-fiche). While he prefers to work alone, Scudder eventually gets a street- and computer-smart sidekick, protégé, and factotum, TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley, Earth to Echo). The relationship between Scudder and TJ never feels genuine or organic. At times, it’s borderline condescending (e.g., white man saving a poor, black street kid). At other times, TJ is just a plot device, a convenient way for Frank and presumably Block to not just show Scudder cares about another human being, but as a shortcut or cheat when a particular plot point needs to be advanced, however clumsily or implausibly.
The third diverges significantly from Block’s novel, putting Scudder front-and-center (and down-and-underground) for an extended, two-part climax. Like so much else in A Walk Among the Tombstones, the third act and the climax is filled with supposedly smart characters making potentially fatal, stupid decisions (again, plot trumps all). It wouldn’t be as egregious of A Walk Among the Tombstones had something else to offer beyond the cheap, manipulative, exploitative tactic of another kidnap victim, this time dressed in a red overcoat and shot in sleazy slow motion (she’s underage). By that point, however, it’s more than clear A Walk Among the Tombstones has nothing to offer beyond its high-minded, faux-serious tone and misogynistic thrills.