When I saw Liam Neeson as a detective I immediately started to dread the release of this film. I could already see another Taken in process, don’t get me wrong, the first one was quite decent, the second one not as much. But what I did know was that it’s a series that is overused at the mere mention of ‘series’. But this is a completely different film, in so many ways.
This adaptation of the 1992 crime novel by Lawrence Block is a much more traditional detective thriller. We see Neeson portraying a damaged, unlicensed private investigator operating outside of the law. Now he is on the trail of some cold blooded killers after reluctantly agreeing to help a drug trafficker find the people who kidnapped and murdered his wife, after he paid the ransom.
Do not for a second think that by traditional I mean boring. On the contrary this offers quite a brutal look into the traditional mystery genre. Again I am not criticising the film when I say this, too often crime films try to make themselves gritty when it isn’t necessary. But A Walk Among the Tombstones perfectly matches the tone of the environment it’s set in. Though not as brutal or terrifying as Se7en, it does match the rough stuff with traditionalism in a similarly satisfying fashion.
This is mainly down to the personality, complexity and layout of the main character. Matthew Scudder is damaged, flawed and relies solely on his own experience to navigate his way through the labyrinth of crime. This character and the story he becomes involved in is at the other end of this genre’s scale to Taken. Scudder has no connection to the case, and this leaves a good sense of moral ambiguity, he avoids violence and has a particular knack for weaning information out of people. But not through torture, he is skilled with his words, not his fists. A bit of a technophobe, like many people as this film is in the midst of the Y2K bug.
The film struggles to avoid some of the clichés that accompany detective dramas. Sometimes it appears slightly too complex, normally this would be an asset for a mystery. But in this case, when the tone and atmosphere of the film perfectly matches the personality and actions of the central character, an overstuffed plot can feel a bit out of place. As well as this, as I mentioned before a good portion of the film fits in too well with the usual style of mystery film. I like to think that the only real problem is that if one part of the film is done so well then it becomes difficult for other elements to match it.
But back to the parts that are done well, they are done really well. The great matching of director and actor makes the film and character match really well. And clearly they both had a good idea of how Scudder should be portrayed. Neeson gives a truly great performance, possibly his best in recent memory. The black sense of humour, mixed with a tiny amount of harm and a vicious streak all make Scudder really likable, we therefore want him to succeed but he also manages to remain morally disputable, which gives way to some promising room for expansion.
While it may be a flawed film, the good parts of Tombstones easily outweigh them. The pacing and atmosphere both serve to make this a smart and stylish thriller that gives some unique twists to the genre. It’s modern film noir of the highest order.