Thursday, September 25, 2014

UnTaken: "A Walk Among the Tombstones" (2014)

I imagine in Liam Neeson's offscreen life, he cannot talk on a telephone without someone with him breaking out in laughter. In his newest film, he again threatens some bad guys, spitting profanity into the receiver, but this time his performance will make you care a little more.

Set in 1999, Neeson is Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic former cop who now makes ends meet as an unlicensed private investigator. He is approached by a revenge seeking drug trafficker (an uneven Dan Stevens) whose wife was kidnapped and raped. Even after a ransom was delivered, the abductors (the chilling duo of David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) murdered the woman and left the body for him to find. After balking at the case, Scudder takes it on, and begins to investigate similar cases that the police were not able to connect. Scattered amongst his investigation are false leads and a lovely sense of paranoia thanks to Y2K fears (remember that?) and some fantastic shots of the killer duo stalking their next target.

Writer/director Scott Frank adapts Lawrence Block's novel and turns it into an interesting flick. It is violent and bloody, with plenty of twists, and Neeson does a great job in the main lead. The cocky expression on his face in the opening gun fight is great, and Frank's ability to lead a character through an actual arc with actual growth and change is almost stunning considering the cookie cutter screenwriting that passes today. The supporting cast is very good, with Olafur Darri Olafsson a standout as a cemetery groundskeeper who once helped the killers. His scenes, and exit from the film, are memorable and I hope the Academy Awards voters remember him early next year.

A few people have taken issue with Scudder's friendship with a homeless kid played by Brian Astro Bradley. I, too. rolled my eyes at their first scene together, but screenwriter/director Frank never takes the relationship between the hero and the boy who emulates him to the annoying heights that brought the excitement of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" to a full stop in between action set pieces. T.J. is a tough kid, never precocious, and I eventually accepted him. Although Scudder is an alcoholic eight years sober, we thankfully never get the old chestnut scene of him sitting alone in a dive contemplating a cheap drink sitting in front of him. His Alcoholics Anonymous recovery is not just a plot device, it works for him and he dutifully goes to the meetings, repeating his story and weak little joke about why he quit while internalizing the real reason he stopped.

The NYC setting hearkens back to the bleak urban mysteries of the 1970's, Scudder's grasp of 1999 technology is tenuous, but Frank doesn't make it a punchline. Frank also doesn't let Scudder become a superhero. He investigates, playing some witnesses in order to get the information he needs. The two villains are creepy and evil, their scenes reminded me of Fincher's "Zodiac," until their identities are learned (or at least until they come out into the light). There is no conspiracy that finds its way to mayor's mansion or anything- sometimes movie mysteries are allowed to be self-contained.

We have seen Scudder before, played by Jeff Bridges in "8 Million Ways to Die" (now that would have been some interesting casting, over two decades after the now-infamous film!), and Lawrence Block has a number of Scudder novels I imagine are ready to get adapted. Neeson may have found his new franchise, and I wouldn't mind seeing more of this character. "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is Neeson's strongest work in years, and one of the best films I have seen all year. (* * * * *) out of five stars.