A Walk Among The Tombstones – 2014

Writer and Director Scott Frank
Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Sebastian Roché, Brian “Astro” Bradley, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson
Based upon the book by Lawrence Block

There is something very lived in about Liam Neeson’s Matthew Scudder, the protagonist from A Walk Among The Tombstones. Given the this story takes place in the 10th of 18 of the Block novels featuring Scudder, we get the feeling of the history that he lives with every labored step and every hesitant breath. There isn’t much that he has not seen, but that doesn’t matter much, because people end up in the same place, no matter how they get there.

This is the second Scudder novel turned into a film. The first being a labored effort starring Jeff Bridges and featuring the writing efforts of Oliver Stone and Robert Towne. It was one of the last big budgets given to Hal Ashby, and he was fired right after principal photography wrapped due to Ashby’s past erratic behavior and that he pretty much discarded the script. Having the cast shoot from the hip was a bad choice, because Block makes his characters work through dialogue.

Scott Frank has written some of the best adapted screenplays ever. Get Shorty and Out of Sight belong on every one’s top 50, while he made The Wolverine more real than he ever has been before or since on the big screen. The work he does here feels respectful to the point of being deliberately clunky. Taking place before Y2K, we see a film that would have fit in that time or even earlier. Cell phones were still used primarily for calling then, and so were pay phones. Both play a big part here, too.

Scudder is a recovering alcoholic who is fully in tune with the process. He’s made peace with who he was and who he continues to be: an unlicensed P.I.. When he is approached by an addict after a meeting, he goes to see the man’s brother, Kenny (Wilson, nothing like the guy one would remember from Downton Abbey). Kenny is a drug dealer who recently lost his wife to men who ransomed her. When he could not meet their financial demands, they literally cut a deal. Now he is out for revenge. He asks Scudder to find them and let Kenny know where they are, and that is it.

In the process of finding the men, Scudder discovers there is more to the case than anyone would have guessed. He also finds some help in the form of a homeless boy, TJ (Bradley). The relationship they strike up is near to every cliché one could think of for the situation, but Frank takes Block’s work and steers just clear of each one, leaving the film feeling fresher than it probably should.

It’s after the extortionists meet up with one of Kenny’s dealer friends that the action and Scudder’s dialogue begins to heat up. There is something about Neeson speaking frankly on the phone that gets the old engine revving. We know who’s going to come out on top, even if the person on the other end of the phone does not.

There is a lot to appreciate in Frank’s adaptation of the material here. The direction is somber, but not Se7en level despair. Scudder and TJ live in the same reality, even if TJ does not quite understand yet. He’s smart enough to survive it. The nemeses are a breath of fresh filth. Their approach to their lack of sanity works because we don’t hear them explain it, even when they try to start blabbing. Frank is smart enough to leave everyone damaged by what they’ve experienced, because, well, we were kicked out of Eden at the start of all stories.

Conversely, there is not a terrible amount of mystery to the general direction of the plot. The characters start at point A and we can tell by who they are who makes it to point B, C, or D. There is enough here, though, to call for another venture, perhaps even a series. There’s definitely more here than in the Taken ventures or the dreadful November Man. It’s the little things that make one feel the difference between an enjoyable story and one that makes you feel you just gave up precious minutes.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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