Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Scott Frank

Stars: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Brian Bradley, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson, Boyd Holbrook, Sebastian Roache, Mark Consuelo, Danielle Rose Russell.

Of the four crime thrillers released in local cinemas this week, this dark, grim and gritty crime drama is easily the pick of the bunch. A Walk Among The Tombstones also sees Liam Neeson back in action hero mode, which should be more than enough to please those who enjoyed his reinvention through films like Taken and Nonstop.

This dark, gritty thriller has been adapted from a novel written by American author Lawrence Block, who has written a series of crime novels featuring his antihero Matt Scudder, a former NYPD detective who now works the mean streets as an unlicensed private investigator. He does “favours” for people who need his help, and in return they give him things.

He is old school in his approach to investigations – he doesn’t trust computers or mobile phones. And he is continually wrestling with his own personal demons, which adds another layer of interest to his character, who is certainly not your typical one dimensional private investigator. But he has a strong sense of right and wrong.

Divorced and a recovering alcoholic, Scudder is very much a loner, emotionally drained and jaded by his experiences. An intense pre-credits sequence gives us some of Scudder’s backstory as he tackles some armed bandits who rob a cafe. The ensuing shootout leaves several people dead, including one innocent victim, which is the source of Scudder’s personal problems and his desperate need to find redemption through helping people in trouble.

But what follows that exciting opening sequence is even better if just as bleak. Most of the action takes place eight years later.

A pair of sadistic psychopaths (played by David Harbour, obviously one of the villains du jour following his work in the recent The Equalizer, and Adam David Thompson) are kidnapping the trophy wives of drug dealers and holding them for ransom. Their rationale is, that because of their own criminal enterprises, the victims will not go to the police. But as soon as the men pay the ransom, the kidnappers kill the victims. The latest victim is Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, from Downton Abbey, etc), whose wife was kidnapped and then returned in pieces after the ransom was paid. Kenny is out for revenge and wants to hire Scudder to find the men responsible so he can kill them. At first Scudder refuses to help because he has a set of ethical standards.

But when the young daughter of Landau (veteran tv actor Sebastian Roache, from The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, etc), another drug dealer, is kidnapped Scudder agrees to help try and ensure she is returned alive. He forms a reluctant alliance with drug dealers and low life criminals, including Kenny’s younger brother Peter (Boyd Holbrook), a drug addicted former marine and a loose cannon. And there is one scene in which he growls threats to a kidnapper over a phone that will have audiences recalling a similar moment from the first Taken.

Scudder also develops a friendship with TJ (Brian Bradley), a precocious streetwise kid who becomes his unofficial associate, and this relationship brings a touch of humanity to the material that tempers the bleak edges.

Scudder was previously played by Jeff Bridges in the 1986 film 8 Million Ways To Die; Neeson is 63, but as he demonstrated in Taken and Nonstop he still makes for a convincing action hero. His takes on the character is a lot meaner and more intimidating than Bridges, who seemed a bit more laid back. Neeson has a strong and reliable presence that is perfectly suited to the role of the flawed Scudder, but he also taps into his vulnerability and self doubt. You can almost feel his pain and feel compassion for his anguish.

This is only the second feature directed by Scott Frank (The Lookout), best known as a writer of films like Out Of Sight, Get Shorty, Minority Report, etc. Frank brings a deliberately gritty surface to this thriller set amidst a grey and overcast New York which is in the same vein as those gritty thrillers of the 70s. Mihai Malamaire’s suitably grey and bleak cinematography is atmospheric and enhances the oppressive mood.

There is also a particularly vicious streak to the violence and lurid subject matter here which is not for the squeamish, and Frank doesn’t pull his punches. The film was originally intended as a vehicle for Harrison Ford when Scott first adapted the novel fifteen years ago, but the actor found the material a little too dark and disturbing.

A Walk Among The Tombstones is not always an easy film to watch, and its bleak and misogynistic tone is reminiscent of superior serial killer thrillers like Seven, The Silence Of The Lambs, etc. This is a very good gritty crime thriller, and it could very well have given Neeson another action franchise. But having followed so closely on the heels of Denzel Washington’s generic and vastly inferior action thriller The Equalizer, it seems as though audiences have had enough of this kind of thing for the moment. At least until Taken 3 hits screens!


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