Liam Neeson as Matthew Scudder
Brian “Astro” Bradley as TJ
Dan Stevens as Kenny Kristo
Boyd Holbrook as Peter Kristo
David Harbour as Ray
Adam David Thompson as Albert
Sebastian Roché as Yuri Landau
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as Loogan
Eric Nelsen as Howie
Mark Conselos as Reuben Quintana
Danielle Rose Russell as Lucia
Marielle Heller as Marie Gotteskind
Directed by Scott Frank
Scott Frank’s adaptation of Lawrence Block’s “A Walk Among the Tombstones” has been in the works for so long, it’s still set 15 years in the past even after jumping forward after a brief prologue featuring hard-drinking cop Matt Scudder (Neeson) gunning down some would-be armed robbers and then dancing a jig.
If that makes you think “Tombstones” is another in the recent line of Neeson shoot-em-ups in the park… well, the studio would probably like you to think that (which is probably why the trailers only focus on the scenes from the prologue and the brief climax). But this character-infused trek into darkness, based on a mélange of crime author Lawrence Block’s best Scudder novels, is both more and less than that.
Someone has been killing women in New York. Specifically the wives and girlfriends of drugdealers, and not just killing but tormenting, holding for ransom and then leaving their pieces strewn about the city in such a manner that even hard-bitten former cop Scudder can’t help but be moved when the most recent victim-cum-widower (Stevens) comes asking for his help.
It’s a classic piece of modern crime plotting offering up Neeson a plumper character than he’s had in quite some time, and giving the world a good reminder that he is still an excellent actor. It’s also quite slow, unraveling its plot in due time to make sure Scudder and the people he runs into are placed in their time and location, three-dimensional and as real any film character can ever be.
It seems clear this sort of character work is what attracted Frank to the material in the first place and few parts of “Tombstone” shine quite so well as when two people are sitting across from one another revealing their own surprising humanity, be it a stalker admitting he will feel bad about having to kill a potential witness or a drug dealer offering up his own cash hoard to pay the ransom of another dealers daughter. It’s far closer in tone and scope to the crime stories of the ’70s than a modern thriller. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare (“The Master”) excels at this sort of photographic time travel, making ’90s New York look like something out of that period. It casts a patina over the entire film, which plays well into the general haggardness and aging resignation of Scudder (and Neeson).
But it’s also a crime film of the modern era. For all its pokes at the past, and as much good will as it earns by doing away with some of the negatives of that genre–few chases or plot twists or out and out thriller moments–there is a notable vacuum left by their absence as Frank frequently doesn’t have anything to replace them with. Actually that’s not true. Left to find a substitute and realizing conversation alone is not going to fill the running time, he falls back on cliché and none more so than wannabe kid detective TJ (Bradley) who wants to be an interesting and unique character, but isn’t.
Much of that is dependent on the skills of the actor delivering Frank’s dialogue. What works coming from Neeson or Stevens (in a dead-voiced monotone that will make you forget all about “Downton Abbey”) is less interesting spouted by TJ, who falls very squarely in the trap of characters who work well on the page but become unrealistic and unbelievable when transferred to flesh and blood. It’s not just TJ, however. Many of the characters are better ideas than actualities, creating a simultaneous admiration for both Frank’s skills as a writer and willingness to side-step certain clichés, and a frustration when he willingly steps into others.
It’s good to see Neeson getting to do something besides bad action movies, and better to see Frank trying to push (slightly) the envelope of the modern crime film. Not all of the kinks have been worked out, leaving “Tombstones” a frequently morose film without enough going on to give the audience the ability to ignore its stumbles. When it works, it rises above much of the level of its brethren. If a lot of its promise ends up in the “lost” category, there is still much in the “found.”