Ever since “Taken” was released in 2009, Liam Neeson has created a genre of his own, where he plays a badass with a gun that disposes one army of bad guys after another. With the exception of his strong, complex performance in 2012’s “The Grey,” he otherwise hasn’t strayed too far away from his on-screen “Taken” persona.
Once I saw the previews for his newest film, “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” I got the feeling that this wasn’t anything new for him. He has a gun, kills numerous bad guys and also has a phone conversation in which he intimidates the villains.
However, after viewing the film itself, “Tombstones” is a breath of fresh air in Neeson’s recent resume of roles, where police procedural plotting takes command in the driver’s seat, and the action instead has to ride shotgun.
Based on the Lawrence Block novel of the same name, Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, an ex-NYC homicide detective and recovering alcoholic, who now works as an unlicensed private investigator. He is hired by a drug trafficker (Dan Stevens) to track down the men who kidnapped and murdered his wife, despite having paid the ransom they demanded.
Scudder’s investigation is also crosscut with the killers targeting their next victim, in addition to numerous flashbacks that provide exposition for the plot and details of past events for several characters, including Scudder himself.
Neeson delivers one of his most compelling performances in recent memory as Scudder, as he approaches the role in a much more subdued manner, something that hasn’t been seen from him in a while. Surprisingly, his character’s dialogue often speaks louder than the gun he fires. This won’t bode well with some of Neeson’s post-“Taken” fans, as they will expect more scenes of him being a badass, but I found this avenue more refreshing because it reminded me of how vast his acting range actually is.
Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” fame is also solid in his supporting role as the man who hires Neeson, even despite the fact that his character doesn’t have a lot to do other than providing exposition to move the plot along.
For me though, the best supporting performance came from 18 year-old former-“X-Factor” contestant turned actor, Brian “Astro” Bradley. He plays a street kid that assists Scudder in following potential suspects in the case, and his humanly realistic portrayal of the role makes up for the underwritten explanation of why he decided to partner up with Scudder in the first place.
As a screenwriter, Scott Frank has a firm background in adapting crime novels for the big screen, specifically his acclaimed adaptations of the Elmore Leonard novels, “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight.” Furthermore, his directorial debut, “The Lookout” (which he also wrote), displayed admirable promise in his evolution as a filmmaker.
“Tombstones” marks the long-awaited second entry in Frank’s writer-director transition, and he was ultimately the best possible candidate for the job. The dialogue is consistently engaging between the characters, and there are also some instances of Frank’s trademark, slyly dark sense of humor.
However, as far as the procedural aspect goes, Frank doesn’t seem to have any interest in transcending any of the genre’s clichés; he instead resorts to a style-over-substance approach.
That’s not to say that his style is bad, because he crafts a fresh presentation that pays homage to the gritty cop movies of the 1970s, which is largely thanks to Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s gorgeous cinematography.
Also, Frank uses violence in way that is far more shocking than the trailers make it out to be, and any time that a gun is fired, the sound booms so loud that it feels like the real thing.
While it won’t appeal to all of the new fans Liam Neeson has accumulated since “Taken,” “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a solid, well-paced crime drama that makes up for its familiarity with Neeson’s commanding performance and Frank’s affectionate handling of the source material.
RECOMMENDED: The Liam Neeson you know from “Taken” isn’t fully present here, but it’s ultimately fulfilling to see him in a role where he’s doing more than just kicking ass nonstop.