A Walk Among the Tombstones

Posted by Joel Copling on September 19, 2014

In 1991, Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) was a beat cop with the Sixth Precinct in New York City. He has just walked into a bar, at which cops did not have to pay for their drinks, only to witness the bar owner shot to death by two crooks who speed away in a car--or they attempt a getaway, until Scudder shoots two of them dead and gravely wounds the third. But one of the bullets (It is likely impossible to know which, and indeed the situation is fraught with such urgency that we know not which, either) took a "bad hop," resulting in a tragedy that, Scudder feels, was entirely avoidable: He was drinking at the time, and he feels the disorientation of the amber stuff was an enormous factor in the messiness of the shooting.

Eight years later, the country is in an uproar with the impending Y2K threat, and Scudder is eight years sober. He's left the NYPD by now, working as an unlicensed contractor. He does jobs for "gifts" (usually money), and his latest one comes through one of his fellow anonymous alcoholics, Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook). Peter's brother, Kenny (Dan Stevens, who is solid but disappears for so long it's disconcerting when he shows back up an hour later), who does construction while operating a drug-trafficking ring on the side, is in a spot of bother: Some men have kidnapped his wife. Not only that, they killed her, regardless of Kenny paying them the money for which they asked as ransom.

Clearly, this is not a group that is easy to bully. Some investigation brings Scudder to the realization that they've likely done this more than once. Indeed, our killers (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) and their one-time accomplice (Olafur Darri Olafsson, chillingly calm) are a calculating lot. They care not for pesky things like verbal agreements, and their crimes are pretty heinous. One killing left the wife of an actor in pieces stuffed into separate plastic bags. Their latest victim is the 14-year-old daughter of one of Kenny's rival drug lords. The stage is set for the usual Mexican standoff and ransom-for-trade bit.

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" hails from writer/director Scott Frank (he of the screenwriting duo for 2002's monumental sci-fi masterpiece "Minority Report) and from Lawrence Block's novel of the same name. This is a familiar thriller that feels like it was borne of last year's far more haunting "Prisoners" than anything else, but it's pulpy and labyrinthine in its own right, with unforeseen complications and a solid study of redemption acting as its core. The real gift is Neeson's performance (nicely complicated by the introduction of a mini-detective in the form of the abandoned TJ, a troubled, African-American youth played quite well by Brian "Astro" Bradley), which has grizzle and grit and world-weariness like the best of Neeson's recent action-hero roles. "A Walk Among the Tombstones" plays familiar beats with expert tension and shades of real depth. It's also a compelling insight into the abyss of a cruel, criminalized world.

Film Information

Liam Neeson (Matt Scudder), Brian "Astro" Bradley (TJ), Boyd Holbrook (Peter Kristo), Dan Stevens (Kenny Kristo), David Harbour (Ray), Adam David Thompson (Albert), Olafur Darri Olafsson (Jonas Loogan), Laura Birn (Leila Alvarez), Mark Consuelos (Ruben Quintana), Sebastian Roche (Yuri Landau), Liana De Laurent (Yuri's Wife), Danielle Rose Russell (Lucia), Natia Dune (Nurse Anna), Razane Jammal (Carrie Kristo).

Directed and written by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Lawrence Block.

Rated R (violence, disturbing images, language, brief nudity).

113 minutes.

Released on September 19, 2014.