A Walk Among the Tombstones stands at the crux of a number of different roads. First, it’s another entry in the “Liam Neeson is a gritty action hero” anthology, although one that’s decidedly lighter on the action than Taken or The Grey. Second, it’s a bit of a throwback to older filmmaking sensibilities. Third, it’s a crime thriller, appears to be very comfortable fully within that genre. And fourth, it seems we’ve begun to reach a place where late ‘90s period pieces are fair game, which is really neither here nor there as the story is concerned, but an interesting curio nonetheless.Neeson plays Matt Scudder, an ex-policeman who now makes a living as an unlicensed private eye. After an AA meeting (which features through the background of most of the film), another attendee brings Matt to meet his brother, a wealthy drug runner (this being the sort of clientele an unlicensed private eye seems find). The brother (played by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame) hires Matt to investigate the kidnapping and murder of his wife. So starts Matt’s journey down a rabbit hole of connected murders of various drug kingpins.
Even as I write that, I must note that I use “journey” in the loosest of senses here. If A Walk Among the Tombstones has one great fault, it is that there is almost no character or thematic arc to the film. This is a problem because the film also sets up its own plot, which is acceptably interesting on a superficial level, as a catalyst for Matt’s development as a character. One of the runners of the movie is that Matt quit drinking and quit the police force years before, after chasing and shooting dead the perpetrators of an armed robbery. We can also see that while Matt was neither hammered when the event took place nor forced out of the police for doing anything wrong, he chooses to leave behind both liquor and his career. Those are significant choices, and by all appearances he’s still looking for peace from the events of that fateful day eight years before.
But as Matt investigates the murders, there’s nothing to force him to confront these issues anew. He (for reasons which were never entirely clear to me) does develop a friendship with a street rat named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) who asks Matt point blank why he stopped being a cop, but this is as close as we get. Matt replies with a well rehearsed answer – we know because there are several AA meetings where we hear Matt recite the same spiel in the same unconvincing manner. Yes, he eventually tells TJ more, but there is never a clear reason for why he chooses to do so nor any emotional payoff for the revelation. Really, Matt is just a cipher, someone just active enough to try to tie together the pieces of a scattershot narrative.
There are going to be some who confuse the “twists” of this movie for quality plot development, but the sad fact is that A Walk Among the Tombstones is not the smart movie it wishes to be. Case in point: some of Matt’s initial investigation takes him to a second murder from about a year before that was very publicly reported. Thus we can assume there was some sort of police investigation. But god, those have to be some stupid cops. Matt gets to the bottom of the murder in about ten hours without resorting to any sort of Holmesian deductions. He follows a straightforward trail that leads him directly to the people who did it. There’s some mess about maybe the DEA was protecting the culprits, but that’s never well explained, and just comes off as grade-A BS and a time wasting subplot.
Far from what the film’s trailer might have you believe, the criminals here are not five steps ahead of Matt and his associates. If you paid any attention to the marketing, there’s a suggestion that Matt’s life becomes personally affected by the people he’s chasing. This simply isn’t the case – the criminals are both cautious and ruthless, but they’re flying by the seat of their pants as much as the next guy, and we know it because there are entire sections of the movie that we see from the criminals’ point of view. The menace of the antagonists here is that Matt and his clients (and by extension the audience) are unaware of what their true capabilities might be. As soon as we see exactly who is responsible, that tension all but vanishes. It’s an odd decision, and one among several that suggest that director Scott Frank, predominantly a writer by trade, struggled some with crafting a unified vision for this film.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
A Publisher’s Weekly synopsis includes the following description of the book by Lawrence Block from which A Walk Among the Tombstones draws its name and inspiration:
[Block’s] Scudder books are built on character, atmosphere, crackling dialogue and a great deal of brooding – the taste for them is addictive.
That sounds like a recipe for success. Trouble is, it’s difficult to describe this movie in the same way. The film is somewhat saved by the fact that this is still Liam Neeson in the leading role, but Matt Scudder is completely devoid of movement as a character in a movie that should be all about his arc. The plot that exists is casually interesting, but too many subplots sap momentum, and an utter lack of thematic development leaves A Walk Among the Tombstones dead on arrival.