Directed by Scott Frank.
2014. Rated R, 114 minutes.
Brian "Astro" Bradley
Adam David Thompson
Olafur Darri Olafsson
We meet Matthew Scudder (Neeson) in 1991. At that time, he's a detective who is also an alcoholic. While he's sitting in a bar having a couple shots, and still on duty, some guys come in and not only rob the place, but shoot the barkeep. Scudder manages to chase these dudes down, fatally shooting two of them and injuring the third. Fast-forward to 1999, and we find out that the event has sobered him up, but he's retired from the force. He earns money working as an unlicensed private investigator. However, he's not too keen on taking the latest case that has come his way. The call came from Kenny (Stevens), a drug trafficker. Kenny's wife was kidnapped, but still killed by her abductors after Kenny paid them off. He wants Scudder to find these people and bring them to him. Scudder takes it on, reluctantly. Twists, turns, and a friendship with a teenager named TJ (Bradley) ensues.
Since 2008's Taken, Liam Neeson has been doing variations on that film's protagonist, as well as reprising the role in sequels. He's sprinkled in other types of roles, here and there, but the one-man army stalking bad guys while menacing them as much with his voice as his physicality has become his bread and butter. What makes Matthew Scudder such a breath of fresh air is that he is a guy who clearly wants to distance himself from being that in a movie that purposely restrains itself from being that type of film. Scudder is a guy who does have a particular set of skills, but also has the type of introspection that comes with being a successfully recovering alcoholic. Neeson handles the role with aplomb and the movie does, too. Scudder actively avoids confrontation on at least one occasion. As he does, it is also the film as a whole seeking an alternative to the path usually traveled by one with Neeson tasked to find some unrepentant villains.
Another personification of the film efforting to be something deeper is the character TJ. He's a street kid whom Scudder meets in the library while researching his case. Scudder is fairly computer illiterate and TJ helps him out. The two form a friendship based on the mutual respect and purposely unspoken sympathy for one another. Brian "Astro" Bradley does very well, never becoming lost in Neeson's shadow. His line readings occasionally feel forced, but overall it's a good performance. His character's arc is problematic, however. TJ is simply another iteration of The Magical Negro - a black character who exists solely to sacrifice himself for the white protagonist. If not that, then he's there to engender sympathy. The problem is the way his storyline plays out is botched. Things happen along the way to set up what seems to be the inevitable. At the last second, the film commendably backs out on fully completing the stereotype. Unfortunately, this is both a gift and a curse to the viewer. It's a gift because it is refreshing that some attempt is made at subverting the trope. It is a curse because the way it's done renders the biggest thing we know about him pointless, creates a plot hole and settles for a cute moment rather than going for an impactful one. I don't actually want TJ to have succumbed to the same fate as so many before him, I just would wish the powers that be could have dealt with him in a more unique way.
Scudder himself, and his relationship with TJ, still makes for fairly compelling viewing. This should have been multiplied by his ongoing investigation of the murder and, eventually, another kidnapping. To an extent, it is. However, it loses some steam once we meet our villains, Ray (Harbour) and Albert (Thompson). We meet them fairly early, so this is not a spoiler. They are certainly despicable human beings. They just aren't dynamic enough to take things to the next level. Given the chance to give us a a pair of truly delicious bad guys, David Harbour and Adam David Thompson are both rather unmemorable. Harbour's Ray does all the talking. He shows up, spouts some generic evil dude stuff then disappears for a while. Thompson's Albert fares better as he shines during the film's finale. Still, neither really transcends the screen. The problem is that both are cardboard cutouts. As guys who are doing some pretty heinous things, we naturally hate them. Unfortunately, we don't HATE them.
A Walk Among the Tombstones ultimately succeeds by cashing in on its consistent contemplative tone. Liam Neeson gives one of the better performances of his post-Taken career and keeps us interested in a man who, while trying to be the hero, has the opposite mindset of most of the characters the actor has become known for. It's fascinating theater to watch him try to save the day, yet not be the man. For all of the problems with TJ as an individual character, the friendship between he and Neeson's world-weary private eye is also fun to watch develop. Eventually, it loses steam because it has to focus on solving the case at hand which becomes less interesting as things proceed. This is a good movie, to be sure. It just falls short of being a special one.