US / 114 minutes / color / Cross Creek, Exclusive Media, Endgame, Jersey, Double Feature, Universal Dir & Scr: Scott Frank Pr: Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Brian Oliver, Tobin Armbrust Story: A Walk Among the Tombstones (1992) by Lawrence Block Cine: Mihai Malaimare Jr Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Mark Consuelos, Adam David Thompson, Sebastian Roché, Laura Birn, Razane Jammal, Danielle Rose Russell, Marielle Heller.
This second big-screen outing for Lawrence Block’s enduringly popular series hero Matt Scudder was far better received than the first, 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986) dir Stephen J. Roth, with Jeff Bridges as Scudder. I actually quite liked the 1986 movie so long as I could persuade myself to forget it was supposed to be a Scudder outing—easy enough to do, since there were idiotic changes to the canonical version, notably a shift in venue from NYC to California. No such fears here, and apparently Block himself has given Liam Neeson his seal of approval as the screen incarnation of Scudder . . . although he would say that, wouldn’t he?
Back in 1991 Scudder was an NYPD cop. Off-duty and drunk at breakfast time, he shot three armed robbers, two fatally. However, a stray bullet of his struck and killed a seven-year-old girl. That was enough to persuade him to give up both drinking and the NYPD.
Now it’s 1999 and he’s working as a PI: because of his unlicensed status he can’t bill for the jobs he does but can accept gifts, preferably cash ones.
One night he’s persuaded by fellow-AA member Peter Kristo (Holbrook) to take on a job for Peter’s brother, major league drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Stevens). Scudder’s reluctant, because he doesn’t like drug dealers, but agrees on learning more. Recently Kenny’s wife Carrie (Jammal) was kidnapped and, despite Kenny’s paying the $400,000 ransom, murdered by her captors: Kenny was directed to an abandoned car in whose trunk he found his wife divided up among numerous small packages. Kenny, understandably, seeks revenge.
Aided by a teenager he befriends, TJ (Bradley), Scudder’s investigation soon reveals that Carrie’s murder is just the latest in a series of similar crimes, all distinguished by their sadism and by the dumping of the remains in numerous small packages. There was Marie Gotteskind (Heller), then Leila Andresen (Birn)—listed in the credits as Leila Alvarez. Like Carrie Kristo, these two earlier victims were connected to the drug trade although not actually involved in trafficking.
Through tailing a park keeper who discovered Leila Andresen’s remains, Jonas Loogan (Ólafsson), Scudder makes the connection between Jonas, Leila and Leila’s boyfriend, Reuben Quintana (Consuelos), another drug dealer. It emerges that the two killers, Ray (Harbour) and Albert (Thompson), possess DEA files on drug traffickers, which is how they’re selecting their victims.
Their latest target is Ludmilla “Lucia” Landau (Russell), 14-year-old daughter of drugs kingpin Yuri Landau (Roché). Brought in by Kenny, Scudder takes charge of the negotiations . . .
Just as Block’s Scudder tales are very much New York novels, so is A Walk Among the Tombstones very much a New York movie—and, refreshingly, confined not just to Manhattan: most of the action takes place in Brooklyn. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr seems to be conducting a love affair with the city here, sometimes using high-angle shots to convey New York’s three-dimensionality, other times treating streets as intimate venues, surprisingly often emphasizing the amount of greenery that’s spread among the concrete.
The tale itself is very conscious of its noirish/hardboiled ancestry, and could perhaps be criticized for not making much attempt to push back the genre boundaries. To be honest, that aspect bothers this site not one whit: rather, I reveled in something that not only felt like a modern incarnation of the PI noir tradition but also, thanks to Malaimare’s efforts, was visually reminiscent of one too.
Further reminiscent of some classic noirs is the fact that the plot doesn’t always quite make sense. Scudder appears to have exactly zero worries about money, yet his PI practice doesn’t seem to be thrumming with jobs and (as noted) he’s unable to charge professional fees but must reply on his clients’ largesse. More in the nitty gritty, there’s an extra murder toward the end of the movie that seems purely gratuitous; perhaps the killer’s rationale was explained in the novel, but in this adaptation it seems entirely motiveless—and in fact, so far as the perpetrator is concerned, quite possibly counterproductive in that the time taken over the crime could far better have been spent making an escape.
However, I was sufficiently wrapped up in the movie that I was prepared to give both of these points a pass at the time—and likewise that the detection process all seemed to be a little too easy—for the sake of the story and its various twists.
The principals all deliver good performances, as you’d expect, but there are some very strong contributions among the supporting cast, too. Laura Birn is given very little to do, which is a pity, but Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is splendid as the shifty, pigeon-fancying, idealistic yet cowardly incel park keeper, while Brian Bradley—better known (albeit not to me) as the rapper Astro—joins a distinguished group of rappers who’ve demonstrated they possess top-rate acting chops.
I enjoyed the movie enough that I was hoping there might be further Scudder movies with Neeson, but apparently that’s not on the cards. On his website Block summarizes:
[A Walk Among the Tombstones] didn’t do much business, not nearly enough to induce Universal to greenlight a sequel, and there were a few reasons for this. A big one was that Liam Neeson, notwithstanding the absolute excellence of his performance, was identified in the public mind as the star of the Taken films. People who wanted more of the same were disappointed by this more thoughtful and less action-packed film. And other filmgoers, those who weren’t interested in an action movie, similarly assumed that was what they were likely to get—and stayed away.
I liked a whole lot about the movie, and I disagreed with many of the changes Scott made to the plot. To my mind the denouement was a cliché, as was the pop-up confrontation with another investigation. (Gee, we’ve never seen that before.) But of course I liked the book better. What would you expect? I wrote the thing.