'A Walk Among the Tombstones'
‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ is one of those heartbreaking movies that works so well for such long passages that it seems quite promising, but gets dogged down by a handful of horrible decisions that spoil the whole thing. Had this been done right, it could have kicked off a franchise of private gumshoe movies for Liam Neeson. Sadly, there’s very little chance of that happening now.
Neeson stars as one of those burned-out, boozy private eyes that Humphrey Bogart and the boys used to specialize in playing back in the 1940s. However, this is a 1990s-set tale (with constant, pointless Y2K references to prove it), so he’s a 12-Step recovering alcoholic, yet still grizzled and hardboiled despite the regular meetings. Things kick off when Neeson is suddenly called in on a job. He’s hired by Dan Stevens’ drug dealer, whose wife was murdered and chopped to bits despite the fact that he forked over the $400,000 ransom demanded by the kidnappers. Neeson is disgusted by the job, but empathetic towards the horrors the man endured, so he takes the case and pursues the killers.
For a while, the movie feels like a grisly post-‘Se7en’ thriller mixed with classic film noir tropes, in a good way. Then Neeson runs into a precocious homeless kid (Brian “Astro” Bradley), who teaches him how to use computers and helps him with the case while making comparisons to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. That, my friends, is the moment in which this whole movie falls apart.
Writer/director Scott Frank certainly has a way with words and knows this genre (he wrote ‘Out of Sight‘ and directed ‘The Lookout‘), but even his skill cannot overcome a pointless kid character. Although Bradley is fine as an actor, his overly-wise and needlessly cute would-be comic book artist is so out of place in the dark and dreary thriller that he throws the whole thing completely off course.
That’s not the only other distracting element, either. The Y2K setting and references go nowhere. (Perhaps they were supposed to evoke apocalyptic dread when Lawrence Block wrote the book, but that certainly isn’t true anymore.) Endless references to Neeson’s 12-Step program stop the movie dead during the climax. These elements were presumably all included to deviate from the standard neo-noir form, and there’s nothing wrong with messing with the format. It’s just that in this particular case, they wreck the movie rather than make it unique.
However, it’s not all bad. At the center is an intense little thriller worth a look. Neeson is more than capable of playing a burned-out private eye, and Scott dives into his lurid subject matter with surprisingly welcome harshness. The film earns its R-rating through some brutal sequences and also spends time with the mysterious killers, who are genuinely chilling.
Cut out all of the kiddie and alky crap, and ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ would be a solid, nasty neo-noir and ’90s throwback. Include it and the movie is merely mediocre and a wasted opportunity. What a shame.