In “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” Liam Neeson gets on the telephone and has a deliberate and quietly intense conversation with a bad man who has kidnapped a young girl, but this is a very different kind of thriller than the borderline cartoonish “Taken” movies.
That said, if you’re ever doing anything illegal and you make a phone call and you find yourself talking to Liam Neeson, hang up the phone, blow it to smithereens, change your name and move far away.
In Scott Frank’s stylish and smart thriller, which is set mostly in 1999 (there’s a lot of concern about the coming Y2K crisis), Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic former detective for the NYPD now working as an unlicensed private investigator. (“Tombstones” is based on one of more than a dozen Matthew Scudder novels by Lawrence Block. In 1986, Jeff Bridges played Scudder in Hal Ashby’s uneven “Eight Million Ways to Die.”)
Scudder is still haunted by a 1991 shooting, the full circumstances of which we don’t learn until very late in the film. Living alone in a small apartment in a rundown building, regularly attending AA meetings, Scudder is just scraping by, trying to stay sober and trying to forget the past.
Writer-director Frank gives us brief, stunning glimpses of the bloody deeds committed by two psychopaths who have been targeting the loved ones of drug dealers — kidnapping their wives or girlfriends, knowing these guys won’t go to the police. Frank, who directed one of the best lesser-seen movies of the 2000s in the Joseph Gordon-Levitt vehicle “The Lookout” (2007) is masterful at building the tension, letting us get to know the characters and then popping us over the noggin with a nimble twist. Some of the set pieces, i.e., one involving a creepy cemetery groundskeeper who keeps pigeons and is a Peeping Tom, is reminiscent of scenes from classics such as “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Dan Stevens, also on screens as a mysterious American visitor in “The Guest” and once again nearly unrecognizable from his days playing Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” is a drug trafficker who hires Scudder to track down the men who kidnapped his wife. Scudder goes about his investigation the old-fashioned way: returning to the scenes of crimes, questioning witnesses, interviewing shady types who might have been involved in previous kidnappings.
As photographed by Mihai Malaimare Jr. in neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn and some of the less glamorous stretches of Manhattan, the New York of “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a bleak, gray, litter-strewn place, where it always seems to be raining or about to rain. It’s solid noir stuff — though the references get a little heavy-handed when a homeless street kid named TJ starts talking about Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe.
About that kid. Brian “Astro” Bradley plays TJ, who has sickle cell anemia, likes to draw comic book characters, hangs out at the library and becomes a partner of sorts to Scudder. The TJ subplot is the least interesting and least subtle aspect of “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” About the third time TJ says to Scudder or Scudder says to TJ, “Don’t feel sorry for me,” and the other one says, “I don’t,” it feels more like a Lifetime movie, about a broken cop who finds redemption by becoming a father figure for a tough but tender-hearted kid from the streets, than the gritty thriller we’d like to rejoin.
Once the villains played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson emerge from their shadowy early appearances, they’re sickos, sure enough, but they’re not any more menacing than the knife-wielding rapist/kidnappers/killers of dozens of other films. What makes the final act of “A Walk Among the Tombstones” so compelling is Frank’s bold and effective technique of placing a very familiar creed in voice-over as the bullets fly and the blood spills.
Neeson is in nearly every scene in the movie, and he carries it well. Yes, he’s played this nails-tough, world-weary, scotch-loving, ex-law enforcement type again and again — but he’s as good as anyone in the world at playing those types, and in this case he has some rich material to work with. Scudder spends a lot more time puzzling out the investigation and working out his demons than he does drawing his gun or clenching his fists.
And that makes him all the more interesting.
Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Lawrence Block. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.