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Film Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones

Based on Laurence Block’s tenth Matt Scudder novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones aims to resurrect the tough, hard-edged, crime thriller as an American film genre. Liam Neeson stars as Scudder, former cop, former alcoholic, who quit the force and the sauce following an off-duty shoot-out with some street punks. A flashback to this event opens Scott Frank’s film in promising fashion, and firmly announces that this is not a picture gunning for an audience-friendly 12A certificate.

The real plot picks up some years later in 1999. A now sober and in-the-programme Scudder ekes out an existence as an unlicensed private detective – he doesn’t take ‘cases’, he performs ‘favours’ ; he isn’t ‘paid’, he receives ‘gifts’. This barely legal occupation means he takes on clients who may wish to avoid ‘official’ entanglements. Through a fellow member of his AA group, he meets a wealthy drug trafficker (played by Downton Abbey’s Stevens) whose wife has been kidnapped and, despite his paying a handsome ransom, subsequently murdered. The details of the crime are grim. Scudder links it to a similar abduction and murder case deducing that the killers are deliberately targeting the families of drug dealers. The method of the killings – victims are sexually assaulted and dismembered – indicates that money is secondary to the satisfaction of twisted impulses.

Writer/director Frank has form in adapting crime writing for the screen, scripting adaptations of James Lee Burke (Heaven’s Prisoners) and Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty, Out Of Sight). The writing is the best aspect of this film: Frank condenses Block’s plot with economy, makes only a few changes (the most significant being the excision of Scudder’s love interest Elaine Mardell), and captures the voice of the dour and world-weary detective well. One line illuminates Scudder’s character more than any number of flashbacks. When another character speculates that he must have left the force due to weariness with corruption Scudder replies, ‘I didn’t mind the corruption, I couldn’t have supported my family without it’.

The problem is that Frank is a lot less skilful as a director. The film is plodding and overlong (something exacerbated by a monotonous soundtrack that could have graced an episode of Columbo), with scenes lacking pace and drag. The visual style is bleached and bland, making New York look generic and grey. Despite the story’s genuinely nasty edge, this often feels like a TV movie.

Neeson is a pretty good Scudder, his gloomy demeanour perfect for a character who carries a crushing amount of guilt on his shoulders. True to form, he gets to deliver at least one crunching sucker punch (Neeson has established himself in his surprising late career renaissance as a terrific brawler). However, in choosing a later novel to adapt, and in ruthlessly paring the backstory, viewers unfamiliar with Block’s series may just see another clichéd detective with a troubled past and miss the themes of redemption and atonement that characterise the series.

Directed by Scott Frank

Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Sebastian Roché, Astro

Released Friday the 19th September by entertainmentone, cert TBC, 114 mins

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