Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: A new Liam Neeson potboiler is headed for theaters, so we’re singling out the best movies of the star’s aging ass-kicker renaissance (excepting The Grey, which we’ve already covered for a past Watch This series).
While it’s fun to watch Liam Neeson in unstoppable action-star mode in the Taken movies, they’re far from his most compelling work as a tough guy. Neeson’s gravitas and seemingly boundless soulfulness are too marginalized in those tales of someone at AARP-qualification age basically becoming a superhero. It’s why his finest post-reinvention work tends to lie in roles that allow him some measure of fallibility, the actor digging into the all-too-human frailties and fears of his characters, elevating even the most perfunctory potboilers. That skill is at the heart of A Walk Among The Tombstones, which locates the essence of Neeson’s appeal and puts it to work.
This vicious little thriller perfectly fits what Neeson actually seems like in much of his action-star oeuvre: a man from a different time stuck in the modern world, bending its trappings to his old-school will. In this case, he’s playing the grizzled gumshoe of a hardbitten noir, who stumbles into a modern serial-killer mystery and works his throwback tactics to solve it. As Matt Scudder, an ex-cop turned private eye, Neeson lumbers around like a man who wants nothing more than for the world to return to the black-and-white imagery of the Hollywood noir of yesteryear because he seems to think he would better belong there. The thing about those old movies: The colors are mostly shades of grey. To Scudder, that’s seemingly all there is.
Set in 1999, the movie kicks into gear when Scudder is approached by a fellow AA member who convinces him to go help his brother, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a drug trafficker whose wife was kidnapped. Scudder dismisses Kenny as a heartless crook until he learns the ugly facts: He was a nonviolent man who dearly loved his wife and paid the kidnappers’ ransom, yet they brutally killed and dismembered her anyway. Scudder tries to uncover the method behind their madness and winds up embroiled in a knotty case involving DEA agents, extortion, and a creepy love triangle—all before a new kidnapping from the criminals starts a race against the clock to bring their latest victim home safe. Scudder also becomes an unlikely mentor to homeless teen TJ (Brian “Astro” Bentley) and tries to get the kid back on the right path. It’s a lot—maybe too much—for one movie, but thanks to Neeson, it mostly works.
The retro-noir narrative can be traced to its source material, the 10th novel in a series of pulpy mysteries by Lawrence Block. (Scott Frank’s screenplay combines the plots of several of the books.) Considering that it’s attempting to serve as an origin story for its protagonist, it makes sense that A Walk Among The Tombstones spends so much time flashing back to Scudder’s former life as an alcoholic cop; had the movie been a hit, it almost certainly would have launched a fertile new franchise for Neeson. And Frank, who directed as well as wrote the film, was the right choice for the project, given the two decades he’s spent elevating genre material, from Out Of Sight to Minority Report to his recent scripting of Logan and the Netflix series Godless.
Perhaps Matt Scudder isn’t the only element that seems pulled into the future from an earlier time: Tombstones is the kind of adult-targeted thriller that used to be a mainstay at the multiplex. It’s also a reminder that the simple, timeless pleasures of a tough-talking private eye working a suspenseful case should never go out of fashion.