When a film writer decides to direct a movie based on a bestselling book, you can rest assured that he knows what he is doing, almost. Scott Frank, who gave us, as writer, some gems in the past - Minority Report
, Marley & Me, Out of Sight, The Wolverine
, amongst others - wrote a screenplay for A Walk Among The Tombstones long before he became its director.
A Walk Among The Tombstones is a crime thriller whose protagonist is the flawed detective, Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson). The author of the Scudder books, Lawrence Block, may be responsible for the birth of this character, but the books have never been anything more than racy reading. It took a Scott Frank to bring the otherwise whining detective to life as an intriguing man with a past.
The past is not very complicated, at least by modern standards. After a horrific incident, Scudder retires from active duty. Now, he is an unlicensed private investigator, who does favours for a gift (read: money), and struggles with nightmares and alcoholism (he has been sober for a while, but it is still painful).
It is 1999 in New York, and the Y2K panic has set in. It is in this environment, as Scudder struggles to exist normally, that he is summoned by a drug lord named Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens). Kenny's wife has been kidnapped, and he has agreed to pay the ransom, but something seems off. He now wants Scudder to look into the matter. Kenny's ultimate goal is to avenge himself, but he cannot do it without Scudder's help.
As Scudder gets more and more involved, he realises that the kidnappers are looking for more than money. They are psychopaths who disguise themselves as Drug Enforcement Agents to lure the family members of drug dealers. What exactly they hope to gain from this is still a mystery, but Scudder has to figure that out. And he does, but not before his past comes back to haunt him, and not before he comes to terms with the monotony of his existence.
To say more will be to give away the suspense, and the suspense is necessary to watch the movie. The story is not compellingly brilliant, but your attention is riveted to the screen because of the imperfect hero. You would think that Scudder, who has seen it all, would be cold and detached when he takes up the case. To your (and Scudder's) surprise, he finds himself reacting to the perversion and depravity that he encounters. Scudder is trying to reform his own character, and these incidents only aggravate his less spiritual side.
The screenplay is a journey of Scudder's character as he goes from indifferent professional to a sympathetic man. The writer has paced out, quite evenly, the high points in the story that lead to a slight change in Scudder, in varying degrees. He remains a thinker, one who does not want to chatter on needlessly, but his wry humour every now and then reminds you that he is not braindead either. In fact, Scudder gets the movie's smartest dialogues, which otherwise range from stating the obvious to trying to be intelligent.
The climax, when it does arrive, is a twist, of sorts. This is where Frank Scott surprises you by delivering the unexpected, both in terms of plot and characterisation. What is slightly jarring in the narrative is the idea that Scudder is firmly etched in the director's mind, because of the series of books on him, but the audience who has neither read the books nor heard of Scudder, may find certain references to his other adventures/stories a bit confusing.
The star of the movie, of course, is Liam Neeson. After the tough-guy act in movies such as Taken, the Schindler's List actor finally plays the dark and brooding silent man (almost) with aplomb. What is unexpected is his comic timing, and that serves as a relief in this intense movie. Neeson is in his element after a while, and he is the only person your eyes will be fixed on.
Giving him some competition, however, is Dan Stevens. He changes from arrogant drug dealer to a sophisticated plotter almost overnight, and Stevens knows how to carry off all aspects of the character. The supporting cast is able and significant, but the movie plays primarily on the chemistry between Scudder and Kenny.
Given that the story is set in 1999, the whole mood of the film yells "nostalgia". It helps that Scudder himself discards new technology, but even then, the production team has been very particular about every little detail to make the period look authentic on the big screen. Ditto for the costumes - the dress department does not over-simplify the clothes, but makes them look gritty and worn in, much like the 1990s were.
Given that there is a considerable portion of action, the camera work is almost top-notch. It captures the mood of each sequence without being too intrusive. The editing complements both the screenplay and the camera. The music then adds to the mood and sets the tone for each sequence.
Die-hard fans of the book may find quite a bit to criticise, since there is a lot that is left out of the book by the same name. In fact, some may even criticise the choice of story. Then again, some die-hard Liam Neeson fans may appreciate the return of the man as an actor. Yes, there is action, and yes there is intrigue, but Scudder is the one aspect of the movie that makes all the high drama (and let's face it - it is on the right side of attempts at a potboiler) seem real.
Watch A Walk Among The Tombstones if you are a crime thriller enthusiast. Remember that this is not an extraordinary story, based, as it were, on a bestseller, but we do not have many of this genre on celluloid right now, and it is the best way to distract yourself over the weekend.