“Tombstones” death-driven P.I. flick

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The evocatively titled “A Walk Among the Tombstones” features Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) as a former N.Y.P.D. detective. He’s locked into a series of grisly murders.

Liam Neeson in a scene from "A Walk Among the Tombstones." Courtesy of  Awalkamongthetiombstones.net

Liam Neeson in a scene from “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” Courtesy of Awalkamongthetiombstones.net

Scudder is haunted by an event that took place back in 1991, which is depicted in an opening scene. Much to his partner’s chagrin, while on duty, Scudder adjourns to a bar. It’s an establishment, where cops can drink for free. It becomes apparent that Scudder is a regular patron there. Three armed Latino thugs enter the bar. Failing to notice Scudder drinking in the back, one of them shoots the bartender at point blank range. Without hesitation, Scudder chases after the fleeing malefactors. He shoots two of them to death and wounds the third, leaving him crippled.
Scudder receives a commendation for heroism. However, there are some unintended consequences of Scudder’s bravura. One of the bullets exchanged in the gunfire ricocheted and killed a young girl. The tragedy prompts Scudder to retire from the force and join Alcoholics Anonymous.
Fast forward to 1999, Scudder has become some sort of a private investigator. He isn’t licensed and describes himself as someone who does favors for people.
One night, as Scudder is sitting down for a meal in a local diner, he is approached by a twitchy member of his rehab group, Peter (Boyd Holbrook). He advises Scudder that someone wants to meet with him. It turns out to be Peter’s brother, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, Matthew on “Dowton Abbey”), who is a drug kingpin. Kenny’s wife had been kidnapped. He paid the ransom and his wife was returned to him-chopped up into little pieces.
Kenny wants to hire Scudder to find the men, who killed his wife. He offers Scudder a quick $20,000 just for having met with him and more upon tracking down his wife’s killers. Scudder doesn’t want to work for a drug trafficker. That all changes when he hears a tape of the kidnappers torturing Kenny’s wife.
Scudder heads to the public library, where he searches the microfiche files for kidnappings with a similar modus operandi. It is one of the film’s various parenthetical details, which help infuse it with a sense of periodicity. Do you remember the pervasive Y2K hysteria? How about NFL quarterback, Dante Culpepper? Referencing them certainly evoke that bygone era.
Neeson does a fine job, capturing Scidder’s world-weariness. His character displays a somewhat unpredictable sense of ethics. He is adverse to working for a drug dealer. However, he readily admits to having taken bribes, when he was a cop. Scudder glibly rationalizes that he needed to support his family. He has a fake badge, which he routinely flashes, to convince people that he is still on the force.
The film has some engaging supporting characters. James (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) is a schlubby groundskeeper at Brooklyn’s sprawling Green-Wood Cemetery. He had discovered the body fragments of a prior murder victim in black trash bags left on the premises. James demonstrates some strange quirks, which arouse Scudder’s interest.
While visiting the public library, Scudder meets T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley from “Earth to Echo”), a homeless African-American boy, who has been abandoned by his mother. T.J. provides Scudder with some technical help, then demands payment for his services. When T.J. learns that Scudder is a private detective, he expresses a desire to become his partner. T.J. is conversant with a wide array of subjects. This includes a familiarity with Sam Spade, the gumshoe in Dashiell Hammett’s pulp classic “The Maltese Falcon.” He eschews the drinking of soda, insisting that it is part of a conspiracy to sterilize young men of color and prevent them from having children. T.J.’s evolving relationship with the cynical Scudder adds a note of poignancy to the film.
The murders are quite macabre. The details suggest that the killers must be twisted sociopaths. Are they somehow affiliated with the D.E.A.? The revelation of their identities is quite disappointing. They end up being far less menacing than their disgusting deeds would suggest. No Hannibal Lecters here. This dubious casting is one of the film’s greatest weaknesses.
“A Walk Through the Tombstones” derives from a novel of the same name by Lawrence Block. It is one of seventeen books involving the Matthew Scudder character. Scott Frank, who previously provided the screenplays for “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” adapted Block’s book and also directed the film. His screenplay takes liberties with the source novel’s denouement.
Cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr. (“The Master”), adroitly employs well framed shots, which often linger on screen. Mercifully, he eschews the use of hyperkinetic stedicam. As a consequence, the viewer can readily follow the action sequences.
The film also boasts a superb score by Carlos Rafael Rivera. Although this is his first credit scoring a feature film, he provides an impressive piece of work. It provides dramatic tension and an atmospheric quality, even when they are otherwise missing from the film. It may seduce you into overlooking some of the film’s shortcomings.
“A Walk Through the Tombstones” contains some memorable vignettes and several vividly drawn characters. The production values are above those ordinarily found in films of this genre. However, the death-driven p.i. flick is plagued with some far-fetched twists and problematic casting of the villains.
** ½ R (for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity) 117minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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