Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

I've been busting my head trying to remember the last real noir movie that came from Hollywood. Crime dramas are not rare; they come out all the time. Hell, some are very good, but most are still more concerned about awesome action over the fine art of investigative storytelling, which is why I'm pretty fond of noir. For whatever reason, the genre seems to be disappearing, so it's fresh to see that we finally got one. And a good one!

A Walk Among the Tombstones tells the story of the hilariously named Matthew Scudder, a former NYPD turned into a recovering alcoholic and Private Eye. After being contacted by a big shot drug dealer to save his wife from a kidnapping, he gets sucked into a big web of fuck that.

Hey so does the idea of Liam Neeson playing a super badass ex-cop holding a gun and running around chasing kidnappers sound familiar? It should, because it's the same premise as the awesome movie Taken. After that movie's success, everyone wants a piece of Neeson action. And why wouldn't they? The man is ridiculously charming and can play the living hell out of a low key non-Expendables credible badass.

Here's the thing, though. If you liked Taken and want to see something similar that isn't Taken 2, you should still approach A Walk Among the Tombstones carefully, because the similarities between both movies end with the premise. Instead of a PG-13 vignette of Neeson badassery as he checks off some slimy kidnappers and eventually rescues his daughter, we get a super dark, super violent and gritty tale that has almost none of the savory satisfaction Taken ends with. This thing is long, it's slow, it's complicated, and you can't always trust in the promised victory of the good guys.

This makes A Walk Among the Tombstones a bit hard to watch, because the atmosphere is so oppressive and dark (think Se7en), the goings-on so messed up, you can't avoid feeling a bit drained throughout its length. This is basically a way to say that this isn't a fun movie to watch, which of course isn't a bad thing, but something that should be considered if you're looking for badass action. Wait until they reveal why Scudder retired; it's chilling as hell.

One of the biggest problems for me was that Scudder's involvement in the whole mystery feels paper thin. He's not trying to save anyone he loves (or even knows). He's not even trying to avenge anyone. He was just hired to get a job done, so he does. Yeah, he becomes attached to the mystery on a basic human level, but I couldn't stop feeling like he could just walk away at any point and shrug the whole thing off. I don't like this detachment.

The plotline is labyrinthine in nature, which actually exposes some of the movie's literary background. A Walk Among the Tombstones is based on one of seventeen "Matthew Scudder" novels and, though the film often feels unfocused as it jumps from one plotline to the next, I do appreciate the complexity; it's always felt like a very basic part of noir. It still needs to be said that there are way too many characters, and some subplots do feel entirely arbitrary and could definitely have been trimmed (did I miss something or what was the point of the two Latino thugs?).

So yeah, the story itself is mostly solid, but the storytelling might not be. This needed severe snip-snip. Nevermind the plot threads being weaved around Scudder - a lot of the exposition is painfully poor, and relies way too much on flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks to be told. I can only imagine a tighter cut of this movie kicking major amounts of ass.

Scudder is definitely a solid character and I can definitely buy him being franchised in the literary word, but the main reason why he's likeable and edearing is Liam Neeson. I can't think of any more ways to express how much I love this man, so I won't. He nails the low-key badass thing in a way that isn't juvenile or ridiculous (like it would be in something like Sin City). It's a shame almost no one else in the cast (which it now occurs to me is mostly male) measures up. The villains in particular were pretty awful. The actors do what they can but both, though one more so than the other, are written with this absurd super calculated malevolence that turns them into caricatures.

I don't like using that word, but I had to. There are clichés in this movie, but that's perfectly fine with me. Again, it's part of the genre, and I appreciate them. But some of them don't work in this dark world. The one that irritated me the most is the addition of a sidekick for Scudder in the shape of a wise-cracking homeless teenager. He provides some completely unwelcome comic relief that instead of lightening the mood just feels out of place. What's worse is that the character himself feels out of place. With one minor exception, and thanks to one majorly contrived plot device, he could be deleted almost entirely from the story. All he does is decrease Scudder's apparent detective skills.

But that aside, this is a welcome change of pace in the crime drama genre. I know I said it was mostly low key but I need to add that the climax that gives the movie its name was fucking phenomenal. I don't want to give anything away but goddamn, that montage was unbelievably intense, and it's partly the reason why this review is mostly positive despite how the movie made me groan several times, especially at first.

In the end this is a visually stunning, well cast and mostly engrossing movie. If you're up for a hard-R noir that isn't fucking around and makes a few forgivable missteps along the way, definitely give A Walk Among the Tombstones a go.
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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