A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (Rated R)
Ever since the 2008 release of “Taken” created a new action hero in an ex-soldier tracking down vile Albanian slave masters who had kidnapped his daughter, Liam Neeson has perfected the role of a tough guy capable of handling danger and dispensing with bad guys.
While waiting for “Taken 3” to arrive at the cinemas, Neeson detours slightly from his action hero path in the more nuanced role of an alcoholic former cop who seeks redemption in a more unorthodox manner, namely helping dubious clients who have been wrongfully aggrieved.
“A Walk Among the Tombstones,” based on Lawrence Block’s best-selling series of mystery novels, suggests a new franchise opportunity for Liam Neeson, this time as unlicensed private investigator Matt Scudder, working just outside the law.
Set in 1999 New York, when fear of impending Y2K doom gripped the headlines, Neeson’s Matt Scudder is a borderline Luddite who doesn’t own a cell phone and is unfamiliar with the tools afforded by the Internet. He’s old school in many ways, but at least he’s ditched his addiction to alcohol by faithfully attending AA meetings.
A prologue to the story involves the then-boozing Matt as an off-duty NYPD cop giving chase to some bad guys that ends in a shootout on busy city streets that goes so horribly wrong that he gives up alcohol and his badge.
Now practicing detective work without a permit, Matt works off the books for people who can’t go the police or to anybody legitimate.
As Matt puts it, he does favors for people and in return they give him gifts, which typically involve wads of cash stuffed in plain envelopes.
Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), a recovering drug addict attending the same AA meetings as Matt, seeks the help of the private eye to hunt down the men who kidnapped and brutally murdered the wife of his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), a heroin trafficker living in an expensive townhouse in Brooklyn.
Initially hesitant to get involved in the case, Matt changes his mind after learning more horrific details about a needless crime.
Kenny paid a hefty ransom only to have his wife tortured and murdered by the psychopaths and left in the trunk of an abandoned car. The grieving Kenny wants retribution and no official police involvement.
Another female victim, her body cut up into pieces and stuffed into trash bags, is soon discovered in the bucolic park-like setting of Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery, a location that figures prominently in the film’s climactic scene.
As Matt is drawn deeper into a quest to find the vicious serial killers, he gets unlikely help from black teenager TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), who spends a lot of time in the library because he’s homeless. An aspiring sleuth, TJ helps Matt to do research and tags along during the investigation.
During the course of his sleuthing, Matt encounters the creepy groundskeeper of the cemetery who seems to know more than he’s willing to tell. Then there’s the dealer and wannabe actor and model who may well be implicated in the abduction of his girlfriend.
The trail eventually leads to a pair of sick degenerates, the odd couple of Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson), who play a sadistic cat-and-mouse game with Matt, which becomes even more intense with their next kidnapping.
The serial killers target victims whose family members are drug dealers or shady characters that would never seek the help of law enforcement. Thus, Ray and Albert snatch the young daughter of a Russian drug dealer (Sebastian Roche) and seek a million dollar ransom.
In this case, Matt becomes involved in negotiating the terms of the young girl’s release, but knowing their real intentions, he deliberately taunts the killers, namely to throw them off their usual game and bring the battle to his own familiar turf.
“A Walk Among the Tombstones” may be best described as a contemporary film noir, updating the style popularized in 1940s cinema. From the creepy nighttime scenes in the cemetery to seedy Brooklyn neighborhoods, the film achieves the kind of dark environment that was once a staple of this genre.
Atmosphere goes a long way to delivering the chilling effects that make “A Walk Among the Tombstones” a compelling crime drama. The viewer is warned that the killers are viciously sadistic and the notion that they mutilate their female victims is repellent and greatly disturbing.
Of course, we can count on Liam Neeson to make things right in the end, delivering the necessary justice demanded by the circumstances, even though the tone of this film is not on a par with the vengeance doled out in “Taken.”
Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.