Tedium, Violence Sink "A Walk Among The Tombstones"

Writer-director Scott Frank knows that his “A Walk Among The Tombstones” is a film out of its time. Based on a decades-old novel by Lawrence Block, the picture’s opening unfurls in 1991 – a sequence that efficiently frames the piece as a hard-boiled detective yarn, complete with an old-timey “Liam Neeson in…” card – with the rest of the film taking place in 1999. But that its opening titles state as much isn’t enough, with the film reminding us of its datedness at every turn. From pay phones to dial-up internet to endless Y2K talk, Scott Frank is determined to remove his movie from the context of the here and now.

It’s a smart tactic that doesn’t really work, since the film – a sufficiently straightforward thriller without much relevance to 2014 – makes no attempt to hide the rest of its deficiencies: an excess of ugly violence, a major subplot with uneasy racial undertones, and scowling. Lots and lots of scowling. Neeson (“Taken”) stars as Matt Scudder, a former cop turned off-the-books private detective (and alcoholic) who becomes a reluctant employee of a local drug trafficker, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, with an always furrowed brow). When Kristo’s wife is kidnapped and murdered, his line of work leads him to Scudder. Both sport unconvincing “New Yawk” accents that undermine their ostensible hardened NYC backgrounds.

By happenstance, Scudder joins forces with TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a wayward African-American teen who’s an aspiring detective versed in all things Humphrey Bogart. In one of many uncomfortable scenes, Scudder lectures the youngster about gun control. Soon, the duo is hot on the trail of two serial killers – Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson) – obvious creeps trolling around in an obvious white windowless van. Harbour’s presence is most disheartening, with the hugely talented actor languishing in a role that’s been done hundreds of times before, and struggling to outshine his no-name counterpart in the process.

From there the film gets unpleasant in a hurry, with the killers ogling a teenage girl in slow motion to the tune of Donovan’s “Atlantis” – a feeble facsimile of David Fincher’s use of “Hurdy Gurdy Man” in his serial killer epic, “Zodiac.” With plenty of graphic violence done to women and children, “Tombstones” devolves from dull to dastardly, seemingly cribbing a major plot point from Martin McDonagh’s brilliant “In Bruges” along the way. That the title of Frank’s film is nothing more than a literal description of its final act isn’t so much disappointing as it is illuminating. There are so few interesting ideas at work here that even its name is insignificant.

But the pic’s nadir is its treatment of Scudder’s alcoholism. Grizzled-cop-with-a-drinking-problem is a tried-and-true archetype, but Scott Frank and company take the idea to its literal extreme. The picture’s climactic shoot-out is intercut with one of Scudder’s Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, inexplicably employing freeze frames to recount the twelve steps of the program. Those meetings have nothing to do with the action at hand, nor are freeze frames used anywhere else in the movie, making for a deeply incongruous, ineffectual conclusion to an otherwise plain Jane detective story.

Audiences are likely to oscillate wildly between boredom and repulsion, with only Neeson enthusiasts finding anything to embrace. Scott Frank knows his way around Hollywood – he adapted “Out Of Sight” for Steven Soderbergh and “Minority Report” for Steven Spielberg – and he even seems to know the limitations of his own film. But the piece brings nothing inventive to the table, and many of its recycled elements are beyond shop-worn. Neeson fans would do well to give “A Walk Among The Tombstones” a pass and hold out for his inevitable next go-round as a weathered, vengeful former cop. The wait won’t be long. “Taken 3” is due for release in 2015.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: September 19, 2014
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Scott Frank
Screenwriter: Scott Frank
Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity)