From Books to Film

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Liam Neeson has made a name for himself in the last few years as the Old Geezer of action heroes in movies known for their simple plots, video-game action, and one-word titles such as Taken, Unknown,and Non-Stop. . . . Regular readers of Liberty know that I’m rather taken with the Taken films, regardless of their simplicity.

But Neeson is more than just a rugged face with a powerful punch; he’s a classically trained actor with more than a dozen major awards and two dozen major nominations, so it’s nice to see him back in a role that allows him to flex his acting muscles again. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a cool, atmospheric crime drama based on a series of novels written by Lawrence Block that feature former-cop-turned-private-investigator Matt Scudder. Scudder is also a former-drunk-turned-recovering-alcoholic.

In Walk, Scudder (Neeson) is the privatest of private eyes; he doesn’t have a license and operates outside the law. He is driven by a mixture of justice and revenge, garnished with a twist of guilt over a tragedy that occurred while he was a cop. This combination can become a dangerous cocktail. Like Mel Gibson’s character in the Lethal Weapon series, Scudder doesn’t have a strong survival instinct. In some ways, in fact, he sees death as a welcome escape — and this adds to the tension in the film. Contributing to the tension are the unexpected and jarring juxtapositions of beauty and horror that lift the quality of the filmmaking and enhance the viewers’ expectations. Especially effective is the way the AA 12-Step affirmations are used at a significant point in the film.

Initially Scudder rejects the job of tracking down the ruthless pervs who have kidnapped and then gruesomely murdered the wife of wealthy drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens). He knows Kenny just wants the pleasure of killing them slowly — and gruesomely — and he doesn’t want to be a part of that. But he is drawn into the case when he realizes that the men might be serial killers who will strike again. The film then becomes a race to find the killers and stop them.

Scudder doesn’t have a strong survival instinct. In some ways he sees death as a welcome escape.

In the books Scudder works closely with police detective Joe Durkin, and the movie role of Durkin was originally cast with Ruth Wilson as a female Joe. But director Scott Frank decided that Scudder’s character is more realistic as a brooding loner, so Joe Durkin was cut from the story line — after Wilson had already been filmed in many of the scenes! (That these scenes aren’t even missed is a tribute to the film’s editor.) Elaine, Scudder’s call-girl girlfriend in the novels, is conspicuously absent as well. Instead, Scudder interacts with a homeless, tech savvy, African-American teenager named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) who serves to soften Scudder in the eyes of the audience while emphasizing the lack of family connection in Scudder’s life. Cutting the two once-prominent characters was a smart move for the movie, despite their integral part in the novel series.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a throwback to the heyday of gritty crime movies. I almost expected to see Popeye Doyle show up for a car chase under the elevated train. The acting is superb at every level. Dan Stevens is especially good as Kenny Kristo, the grieving and vengeful husband; his intense, icy eyes glare up under heavy brows in every scene, convincing us that he is capable of anything. Astro (who was discovered as a young rapper on The X Factor a couple of years ago) is also effective as the homeless kid with the optimistic outlook and poignant determination. And it’s always good to see Liam Neeson step out of his one-word, one-tone, one-dimensional action romps to remind us that he’s still an A-list actor.

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