Monday, September 22, 2014


(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Scott Frank. Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian "Astro" Bradley, Mark Consuelos, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Sebastian Roche, Eric Nelsen, Maurice Compte, Leon Addison Brown, Danielle Rose Russell. (R, 115 mins)

Based on a 1992 novel by Lawrence Block, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES marks the second attempt at bringing Block's Matt Scudder character to the big screen. A disgraced, alcoholic NYPD cop who gets sober and becomes an unlicensed, off-the-books private detective, Scudder has been the protagonist of 17 Block novels dating back to 1976.  1986's barely-released 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE, based on Block's 1982 novel, starred Jeff Bridges as a Los Angeles-based Scudder and was the final and arguably worst film of the great Hal Ashby (HAROLD AND MAUDE, BEING THERE). Ashby was nearing the end of a cocaine-fueled decline (he died in 1988) and completely ignored the script by Oliver Stone and future ROAD HOUSE poet laureate David Lee Henry, which itself had little to do with Block's book. The cast, headed by Bridges, Rosanna Arquette, and a pre-UNTOUCHABLES Andy Garcia, was encouraged to improvise and appear to be directing themselves, and the film features the single worst "showdown at an abandoned warehouse"--with Bridges and Garcia shouting at one another from opposite ends of a warehouse that appears to be the length of five football fields--in movie history. Maybe the whole thing was meant to be a goof, but at any rate, Ashby was fired immediately after shooting wrapped and the film was edited without his involvement, not that it would've mattered by that point. There's a reason it's taken nearly 30 years for someone to attempt a new Scudder adaptation: displaying approximately eight million ways to kill Ashby's career, 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE really is that bad.

Fortunately, in the hands of director and veteran screenwriter Scott Frank and star Liam Neeson, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is a major improvement. Frank scripted the Elmore Leonard adaptations GET SHORTY (1995) and OUT OF SIGHT (1998) for Barry Sonnenfeld and Steven Soderbergh, respectively, and made his directorial debut with the sleeper gem THE LOOKOUT (2007). Frank updates the novel's setting to 1999, presumably in order to retain Block's NYC flavor and Scudder's pavement-pounding investigative techniques. It also allows some references to what was considered a looming catastrophe with Y2K, with Neeson's Scudder expressing an apprehension about using computers and cell phones, and to a NYC that had no idea 9/11 was on the horizon. A CGI'd Twin Towers are seen near the end, and when one of the villains smugly tells the other "People are afraid of the wrong things," it's no accident that Frank immediately cuts to a jet preparing its descent against the NYC skyline. Like the recent THE DROP, TOMBSTONES makes excellent use of areas of the Five Boroughs that have remained relatively unaltered amidst the last quarter century of changes to NYC, and it really captures the gritty essence of the kind of Big Apple thriller that was commonplace in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Given its grim subject matter, it wouldn't take much tweaking to turn TOMBSTONES into the kind of Times Square grindhouse exploitation film whose title would've adorned marquees of 42nd Street theaters way back when.

After a brief 1991-set prologue that shows a hard-drinking Scudder gunning down three shitbags who shoot up a cop bar, Frank cuts to 1999 as an eight-years-sober Scudder lives a solitary life in a small apartment and attends daily AA meetings. He's approached by recovering junkie and Desert Storm vet Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), who knows he deals in off-the-radar private investigation. Peter's brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) is a high-end drug trafficker whose wife was kidnapped the night before. Kenny paid the $400,000 ransom but they killed her anyway, sending him all over the city to make sure he didn't have the cops in tow, ending up in a run-down neighborhood where he finds the pieces of his wife's body tied up in trash bags in the trunk of an abandoned car. Given his source of income, Kenny doesn't want to go to the feds, so Scudder reluctantly accepts the job to the tune of $40,000. In his microfiche research at a library, Scudder encounters homeless teenager TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley) making use of the newfangled internet. Scudder finds links between the murder of Kenny's wife and that of numerous other killings going back to 1997, starting with a DEA agent whose body was found in a similar dismembered fashion in a pond at Green-Wood Cemetery. Other victims have ties to major NYC drug traffickers, and Scudder comes to believe that the killers are rogue or former DEA agents ("Why former?" Scudder is asked, to which he replies "Because they're insane"). When the young daughter (Danielle Rose Russell) of a Russian drug boss (Sebastian Roche) is abducted, Scudder and his eager apprentice TJ, along with the Kristo brothers, take action.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is a more subdued, low-key vehicle for Neeson, who still kicks ass, but doesn't do it in a TAKEN sort-of way. As played by Neeson, Scudder is appropriately tired and weary and unable to mask a sense of overwhelming regret over a tragedy that haunts him nearly every waking moment. It's unlike Bridges' portrayal, which, once his Scudder was sober, was more along the lines of a laid-back, affably smart-assed SoCal beach bum-type, not exactly "Dude"-like, but pointed in that direction. Given that there isn't much in the way of big-name co-stars, it's surprising how much of an ensemble piece TOMBSTONES becomes once Scudder and his piecemeal crew take shape. There's also a brief but memorable performance by Olafur Darri Olafsson as a creepy cemetery groundskeeper who became a reluctant accessory to the killers, a pair of truly vile, loathsome sadists played by--it's not a spoiler, as their identities aren't kept secret--David Harbour and Adam David Thompson (the trailer does stupidly reveal Olafsson's fate, thereby depriving anyone who's seen it of one of the film's most unexpected and shocking moments). The film is superbly directed throughout, with some well-done 1990s ambience and period detail, effective framing of actors and structures, and the greatest use of Donovan's "Atlantis" this side of GOODFELLAS. Between "Atlantis" here and "Hurdy-Gurdy Man" kicking off David Fincher's ZODIAC, it's obvious that Donovan tunes make the most chilling accompaniment to serial killing. The throwback flavor of films like TOMBSTONES and THE DROP are a hopeful indication that these sorts of adult-aimed dramas are making a bit of a comeback. This won't have the mass appeal of a TAKEN, but it's a nice compromise between the action hero and serious actor sides of its immensely popular star.

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