More Vengeful Neeson in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones'

Liam Neeson hunts down two serial killers with his guns and one-liners in the new thriller.

Universal Pictures

The beginning of A Walk Among the Tombstones finds Liam Neeson dressed like a post-apocalyptic marauder, his hair overgrown instead of grown out. He struts cocksure with that dirty cop swagger only the movies can romanticize and he grabs breakfast—two shots and a coffee—in a dark saloon in New York City, looks like Hell's Kitchen. It's 1991, but it could be 1891.

This opening scene, merely a flashback in writer/director Scott Frank's new film, ends up being the best part of A Walk Among the Tombstones. But it offers a glimpse of the director's shadowy vision. Like his directorial debut, 2007's excellent The Lookout, Frank's follow-up (what took so long?) portends the ominous by keeping the lights dim and the shots professional.  

A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on mystery stalwart Lawrence Block's book and featuring his most famous character, is an alarmingly simple movie. It's about an ex-cop who's hired by a drug dealer to find the guys who kidnapped and killed his wife in horrific fashion. I use the word "alarming" because these types of films usually come with a built-in twist, but this one is old school action, like a well-made Steven Seagal flick. There are good guys and there are bad guys, and in the end, they'll try to kill each other.

Neeson's the ex-cop, Matthew Scudder, who accidentally killed a little girl once in a street shootout (hence the flashback) and is now playing out his hand as a rogue private eye and devout AA member. A fellow addict, Howie (Eric Nelsen), has a job for him. Howie's brother, Kenny (Dan Stevens), wants someone to find the guys who killed his wife. She was kidnapped and held for ransom. Kenny paid, but they killed her anyway, chopped her up even. These guys aren't just some crooks, they've got a much more frightening purpose.

Dan Stevens in <em>A Walk Among the Tombstones</em>. (Universal Pictures)
Dan Stevens in A Walk Among the Tombstones. (Universal Pictures)

But Matt isn't scared. He's walking dead already, staring through people with those Neeson lamps while waiting for his number to be called. Scudder's life is penance for the one he took so he treats danger as a mere nuisance on the path to whatever redemption he hopes lies ahead. Finding these sickos becomes his mission and nothing will stop him. For Neeson, Scudder is his darkest character since The Grey, but one that follows his well-documented, recent career trend. Scudder is another damaged alcoholic with a strict moral code and particular set of skills that makes him hero material. And Neeson gives him credibility. 

What A Walk Among the Tombstones lacks is something original to make it memorable. It's a cookie cutter mystery with a lot of violence and few thrills. Neeson gets a few standout lines, but the script is pedestrian and the supporting characters thinly-sketched at best. The killers are never developed so their brand of evil is arbitrary and seems conjured. One character who does stand out is T.J. (The X Factor's Brian "Astro" Bradley) a homeless teen who becomes Scudder's right hand man and injects the film with some much needed comic relief. Bradley, seen previously this year in Earth to Echo, is a natural in front of the camera.

Frank's direction is assured and the story is solid, if unspectacular. Neeson is just so good at being tough, he's worth seeing by himself. But the film seems like a missed opportunity. I wanted to see more of the younger Scudder, with that long hair and trenchcoat, boozing at 9 AM or whenever it was. We get a taste of that guy and he's unceremoniously yanked out from under us and replaced with the older, more calculating Scudder. He's still a compelling character, but the younger guy could've been legend. 

'A Walk Among the Tombstones'
Universal Pictures


Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.