At the age of 56, Liam Neeson reinvented the action hero and the action movie genre with the 2009 release “Taken.” Five years later, he’s the perfect choice to help bring some freshness to the private detective mystery genre in the film adaptation of Lawrence’s Block’s novel “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”
In only his second big screen outing as director, Oscar nominated screenwriter Scott Frank delivers a compelling mystery with a terrific yet unobtrusive visual style reminiscent of classic action films such as “The French Connection.” It opens with a bang in a sudden, adrenaline jolting shootout culminating in a classic opening title sequence. Shot from the bottom of a staircase, the camera looks up at silhouetted cop Matt Scudder (Neeson) descending the stairs toward his perp as the first credits appear above his head. It’s one heck of a hook.
That sequence takes place in 1991. We then jump to 1999 to find Scudder a no-tech, sometimes private investigator no longer with the force and oblivious to the rampant Y2K fears. As the talkative member of a twisted serial killer duo (David Harbour) says, “People fear the wrong things.” Wealthy drug trafficker Kenny Cristo (“Downton Abbey’s” Dan Stevens) has learned that all too well with the abduction and grisly murder of his wife. He enlists the reluctant help of Scudder to find the men responsible and sets him on a path of discovery bigger and sicker than this one woman’s murder.
It’s hard to think of a 1990’s tale as a period piece, but we are two decades hence. Though we’re given something unexpected here, there’s at the same time an old-fashioned look and feel to the movie and its storytelling. References to Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, the classic detective fiction characters of authors Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, add to this. Yet even they are freshly presented coming from the unexpectedly literate character of TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley).
TJ’s a non-stereotypical street kid who hangs out at the library. Neither a criminal nor a juvenile delinquent, he’s a smart, computer savvy youngster who doesn’t want pity but would like to be a private eye with a cool name. Bradley is an engaging and instantly likeable surprise who makes a terrific counterpoint sidekick to Neeson’s edgy, troubled and not to be messed with antihero. Together, they help make “A Walk Among the Tombstones” the year’s most unique must-see thriller.