Tombstone Blues

A Walk Among the Tombstones: adapted by Scott Frank from the novel by Lawrence Block; directed by Scott Frank; starring Liam Neeson (Matt Scudder), David Harbour (Ray), Adam David Thompson (Albert), Dan Stevens (Kenny Kristo), and Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley (T.J.) (2014): It looks like one thing the American box office doesn’t want is a movie starring Liam Neeson that doesn’t suck. Oh, well. Adapted by screenwriter-turned-director Scott Frank from one of Lawrence Block’s hardboiled, modern detective novels featuring world-weary ex-NY-cop Matt Scudder, A Walk Among the Tombstones is refreshingly old-school noir in its sensibilities.

And such grim sensibilities, with little of that bang-bang, pop-pop revenge crap Neeson’s been doing so much of lately. As Scudder, Neeson takes punishment but only reluctantly dishes it out. Frank lets Scudder loom in certain shots, taking full advantage of Neeson’s over-sized presence. And the actor occasionally known as ‘Astro’ throws in a solid performance as T.J., the smart-ass street kid who decides he wants to be a private detective because Neeson makes the whole enterprise look sorta cool.

The case involves unlicensed P.I. Scudder being hired by the brother of a fellow A.A. member to hunt down the kidnappers-turned-rapists-and-murderers-and-dismemberers of his wife. But this isn’t one of those movies about loveable innocents being screwed over by a harsh and uncaring world until Shane rides into town. The brother is a dealer in hard drugs (“A trafficker, if you understand the difference,” he tells Scudder). And it turns out that the kidnappers have been targetting the families of other mid-level drug dealers because the dealers won’t notify the police.

Remembrances of Scudder’s own sins form a structural element in the film, used to good effect especially in the climax, which is brutal and messy and jarringly realistic. Like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe (both of whom T.J. namechecks), Scudder walks down the mean streets mostly alone, but not quite. The characters he meets will be colourful, to say the least (when one asks Scudder how he figured out that he had something to do with the murderers, Scudder tells him, “You’re a weirdo.”). And the depiction of the violence is unsettling, never moreso than in the opening credits. 

Frank situates much of the action among decaying streets and cemeteries and houses and rooftops in Brooklyn, with a few forays into the high-toned habitats of highly successful drug dealers. Set in 1999, the film uses the Manhattan skyline and the planes flying over it as a pre-9/11 commentary on cultural doom in some scenes: “People are afraid of all the wrong things,” one of the killers notes, amused by the Y2K fears that dominate the newspaper headlines. It’s a smart, faithful adaptation of the novel, and a fine addition to cinema’s hardboiled detective films. Highly recommended.

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