Scott Frank’s detective thriller “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is, at heart, a fully old-fashioned pulp potboiler — set in the convincingly ancient-feeling era of 1999 — enlivened on one hand by a committed Liam Neeson, playing a more cerebral version of his usual avenging heavy, and soured by some predictable yet relentlessly sadistic savagery toward women. Too formally well crafted to be dismissed, but too straightforward and uncurious to be particularly exciting or insightful, this adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel ought to at least provide a healthy counterprogramming option at the box office.
Starting with a 1991 prologue, we’re introduced to detective Matt Scudder (Neeson), a racial-epithet-spewing drunken cop straight out of the Popeye Doyle school. Double-fisting whiskey with his morning coffee, Scudder happens to be out of sight in a tavern when a trio of armed assailants burst in and shoot the barkeep. Scudder gives chase and takes out all three, only later realizing a young girl was killed in the crossfire.
Come 1999, Scudder has retired from the police force and given up the drink, working as a kindly unlicensed P.I. when he’s not telling his story at AA meetings. Through a fellow addict, he’s introduced to Brooklyn drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), who hires him to locate the two men who abducted his wife. Kenny already paid the ransom, only for the kidnappers to lead him to a car with his wife’s butchered body in the trunk. Now he simply wants revenge.
Taking on the case, the technophobic Scudder relies on his wits and shoe leather, tracking suspicious types through the boroughs, reading up on old cases in library archives, and at times simply wandering the streets. Neeson’s late-career evolution into one of modern cinema’s most reliable action stars has been something of an odd turn — possessed as he is of such an inherent likability and an ineluctable kindness in his eyes — and it’s a pleasure to see him allowed to play a quieter character here than the rope’s-end brawlers he’s limned of late.
Along the way, he’s assisted by a sardonic homeless teenager named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), who sleeps in the library and helps Scudder with Internet research. (The impending Y2K bug is a popular conversation topic throughout.) The character is a bit hard to buy — and he speaks with urban slang that would have seemed suspiciously out of date 15 years ago — yet his relationship with Scudder somehow works, as TJ attempts to serve as a sort of assistant, having absorbed volumes of Hammett and Chandler in his spare time. Gradually, the two realize that Scudder’s current case is not the first of its kind: A pair of kidnappers have been targeting the wives of drug dealers (who are unlikely to go to the police) for months, always viciously killing their captives once payment has been received.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to state that every single female character of any note in “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is either stalked, mutilated, raped or murdered (in non-graphic yet disquieting, disturbingly stylized detail), and none is granted more than a line or two of dialogue along the way. (Curiously, the literary Scudder’s love interest Elaine Mardell has been cut from the adaptation, as well as previously attached cast member Ruth Wilson.) Frank certainly never waters down the gruesomeness of the story’s violence, which is philosophically commendable, but the film he’s constructed is otherwise too much of a meat-and-potatoes genre exercise to bear the weight of such horrors.
Part of the fault here may lie in Frank’s presentation of the killers, who spend the first half of the film as shadowy boogeymen, only to be formally introduced as an apparent gay couple reading the morning paper over breakfast. Played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson, these two are hardly budding Buffalo Bills, and Frank never figures out what to do with their characters: Lacking any sort of recognizable motivations for their grotesque crimes, the newly visible villains diffuse a degree of the film’s tension and introduce an odd undertone of oblique homophobia along the way.
In the film’s strangest scene, the two killers are seen casing out a Russian drug lord’s house when they happen upon his preteen daughter (Danielle Rose Russell) crossing the street. They stare in disbelief as she walks by, waving at them in slow-motion, with Donovan’s “Atlantis” playing on the soundtrack, a sequence bizarrely reminiscent of Bo Derek running across the beach in “10.” Are we supposed to be inside the twisted minds of the kidnappers here, experiencing the first sight of their future torture victim as something akin to first love? If so, it’s a gamble that the film botches entirely, and the scene simply hangs there in the mind, as uncomfortable as it is unrevealing.
Otherwise, Frank orchestrates the more straightforward thriller setpieces with a good deal of panache and style. The climatic shootout is handled well; a quietly bravura interview sequence in a rooftop pigeon coup is better still. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s photography is consistently impressive, and composer Carlos Rafael Rivera offers a score that is unexpectedly melodic, yet entirely effective.