Five years ago, Taken transformed Liam Neeson from a delicate dramatic actor into a snarling action star. The change might have been lamentable, if not for the fact that in the half dozen genre films he’s toplined since 2009—Unknown, The Grey, Non-Stop among them—he has each time elevated the janky material with his stalwart workmanlike commitment. In the latest case, A Walk Among the Tombstones, he plays gruff Brooklyn private eye Matt Scudder (the bullet-holed hero of Lawrence Block’s popular book series), here tasked with hunting down a pair of deviant kidnappers that used power tools on the wife of a drug dealer (Dan Stevens). No matter how ridiculous and ugly the story gets, Neeson is an endlessly compelling presence—so gaunt-faced and haunted that for a moment in time it’s regrettable that he didn’t portray Abraham Lincoln as originally planned. It hardly matters when his low growl of a voice switches from an Irish brogue to ”Was wonderin’ if I could tawk to ya?” in the space of one sentence.
Director Scott Frank, the Out of Sight screenwriter whose first feature was 2007’s moody noir The Lookout, aspires to do something higher-brow with Block’s pulp novel. This backfires on the script level, where a number of head-scratching social commentaries (including gun safety, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Sickle Cell Anemia) inappropriately elbow their way into a plot repellent enough to features a woman’s breast being sliced off by piano wire. But he has more artistic success with the movie’s visual style, collaborating with the imaginative cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master) to create a darkly beautiful, tilt-focused picture of wintry Brooklyn. The tombstones of the title refer to the ones in Greenwood Cemetery, a New York attraction of magnificent landscape and design, which is flaunted in its entire spooky cinematic splendor for one of the first times ever onscreen.
Frank borrows from the best. A visual reference to the World Trade Center late in the film is an exact replica of Steven Spielberg’s Munich finale, and he also cribs from Martin Scorsese (GoodFellas) and David Fincher (Zodiac) when he uses a Donovan song as the soundtrack for florid violence. More original are his period preoccupations. Though Block’s book was published in 1992, Frank has adapted it so that it takes place in 1999, and he loads on the fifteen-year-old details: video stores, pay phones, microfilm, Y2K anxiety. The nostalgia is most evoked in the depiction of the sociopathic killers as a gay couple—a smutty tactic trotted out in 90s thrillers like Basic Instinct and rarely seen in movies nowadays. The relationship is too undercooked for anyone to accuse the movie of homophobia, but the subplot almost works as a knowing wink from Frank, who clearly has an eye on hoary devices of decades past. As a throwback to a type of nasty, ugly crime film of yesteryear, A Walk Among the Tombstones cleans up. B