A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES Movie Review: Is Good Enough Good Enough?

Liam Neeson plays PI Matthew Scudder in a movie that feels way behind the times. 

They don’t make movies like A Walk Among The Tombstones anymore… and maybe that’s a good thing. Scott Frank’s adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel (one in a series about protagonist Matthew Scudder) is something of a dinosaur because this sort of storytelling - straightforward tales of troubled men dealing with the dark underbelly of the world - has migrated so completely to television that A Walk Among The Tombstones feels absolutely out of place on movie screens. What’s more, it feels entirely too short - at eight or ten hours, A Walk Among The Tombstones could have been a great examination of intriguing characters, but at two hours it’s a solid diversion that will really appeal to dads.

Liam Neeson is Scudder, first introduced with a drinking problem and a terrible wig. He’s a cop whose favorite bar gets robbed and he ends up gunning down the skells in the middle of the street. That shoot out made him a hero to everyone but himself, and the movie jumps ahead a decade to 1999; Scudder is in AA and works as an unlicensed private eye. An addict from his meetings pulls him into a case that he wants to avoid: a drug dealer’s wife was kidnapped, and once the ransom was paid she was returned to him in tiny pieces. But while Scudder wants no part of the case, he eventually gets dragged in and discovers that a pair of sicko pervert serial killers are targeting the families of narco kingpins for cash and kicks.

The central mystery, such as it is, in A Walk Among The Tombstones is sort of flat. What brings the picture to life are the weirdos that Scudder meets in his investigation. Mobsters, deviant cemetery caretakers and an orphaned black kid who wants to be Sam Spade enliven the edges of the movie, all characters who - in a ten hour TV series - could have exploded on their own. The killers themselves are fascinating oddballs, and I would have loved the extra time an AMC series could have given them. Every time one of these characters brings the film to unique life A Walk Among The Tombstones is forced to move on to the next plot point - many of which will be overly familiar to fans of modern crime fiction.

Neeson’s Scudder is another stoic hero in the actor’s late-period tough guy phase; Scudder’s an unusual Neeson hero in that he’s reluctant to use violence, but when he does it’s cataclysmic. Scudder’s got a dark heart, but there’s levity in him as well; a scene where he tries to punch a guy through window is very funny, largely thanks to Neeson’s excellent comedic reaction. He’s a strange character, though, in that he walks through the film largely unchanged. Most of Scudder’s character development happens between the opening scene and the beginning of the case, offscreen.

If he changes at all it’s a slightly hokey arc that has him warming up to TJ, his sidekick played with immense affability by Brian “Astro” Bradley (that’s how he’s credited). Scudder meets TJ in the library where the homeless kid sometimes sleeps and enlists his help in using the newfangled computers. The two have a sweet rapport, but there’s still a tremendous amount of cheese in the whole relationship. TJ isn’t quite Short Round, but they’re on the same part of the sidekick spectrum. That said, TJ might be the best thing in the movie, and Bradley is a very fresh talent.

In many ways A Walk Among The Tombstones feels like a 90s movie aping a 70s movie. It’s slightly too slick, it’s a little too straightforward and it doesn’t do enough with the meat and potatoes it’s serving. It has definitions of masculinity that feel outdated, and it's the kind of movie where the female character who gets the most screentime is literally in a coma. The woman with the most dialogue is an exposition-spouting nurse. The woman whose death sparks the whole story is seen only when being raped and murdered, and she doesn't exist as a character at all.  It’s a smaller film that feels small as opposed to intimate, like it just doesn’t have enough scope. This is a movie that basically does what it says it’s going to do, but never transcends in any meaningful way. The ending, which is probably dynamite on the page, is a fizzle on the big screen. 

The word ‘solid’ was coined to describe A Walk Among The Tombstones, but it’s a bummer - Scott Frank can deliver much more than ‘solid.’ If he had taken this story to television, had been allowed to spread out a bit in this world, we’d all be breathlessly talking about Scudder’s adventures week to week. Instead we’ll watch a movie that’s good enough and move on.