Nobody beats a dead horse like Hollywood. Once something shows even a modicum of popularity they are copying and pasting that son of a bitch as if their lives depended on it. This is how cinematic fads are born. “Divergent” and “The Maze Runner” exist because “The Hunger Games” was a big hit. And “The Hunger Games” exists because “Twilight” showed that thinly written young-adult fiction could be affordably optioned and produced and generate a whole lot of cash. This week’s movie, “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” exhibits the same fundamental problem I had with “The Maze Runner”: a tired premise.
In this case, the tired premise comes in personified form. The star, Liam Neeson, has defied all odds to become one of the biggest in the world at an age where most actors are only capable of playing sage-like mentor supporting roles or senior citizens looking to cross things off their bucket list. Somehow, in spite of all conventional wisdom, Neeson (a.k.a. Liam Neesons) is a huge star who is contractually obligated to appear in two thrillers a year. That contract also mandates that he must: a) talk threateningly on the phone, and b) wield a gun like a boss.
It’s unfortunate I find myself waterlogged by Neeson movies, because “A Walk Among the Tombstones” isn’t a bad film. In fact, it’s up there with 2012’s “The Grey” as one of the more bleak movies he has appeared in. Unfortunately, it’s mired in clichés and there aren’t a whole lot of twists you won’t see coming 10 miles away. I always find loosely assembled thrillers interesting. The ones that are well-acted and perfectly pulpy but never manage to establish tension or stakes high enough to care about.
What the movie does well is establish a particularly filthy gutter for Neeson and company to wade through. It’s a gruesome world filled with ugly people. Though based on a novel, a lot of the movie felt like it was spawned from the Asian crime films that have been kicking ass and taking names for the last decade. Neeson plays an ex-cop named Scudder who makes a living as an unlicensed private detective. He carries some heavy baggage from the days he spent with the police and has relegated himself to a life of solitude. Because much like NFL players, retirement is rarely pleasant for police officers, which is strange since so many movie cops seem obsessed with making it to retirement.
Anyway, our grungily named protagonist gets a case from a drug dealer looking for the kidnappers who killed his wife. It’s the kind of “off the books” case that someone like Scudder was made for. In spite of his initial apprehension, he reluctantly looks into the matter and discovers some really ugly characters who could use a good reckoning. I actually was amazed at how low-key “Tombstones” was, especially after the last few Neeson films, which were heavy on bombast and low on brain cells. It’s unfortunate because this is the most eclectic Neeson film yet in terms of unconventional, nihilistic downers. The only problem is how bored I am with both the premise and with Neeson. Most of the time he livens up material, but here I felt he was almost too polished for such a gruesome role. He’s not bad, but I feel as if I’m suffering from an acute case of Neeson atrophy.
There were clips and fits of “A Walk Among the Tombstones” that reminded me of the underrated Sean Penn film “The Pledge” and the wonderfully ridiculous “8mm” with Nic Cage. These movies wallow in the seedy underbelly that used to seem far more romantic when they were filmed in black and white with fedora-wearing private dicks. The modern versions are far more frayed at the seams, set across the less-charming cityscapes that have abandoned glamour and glitz. Gas lamps replace the ugly orange glow of electric street lights.
“A Walk Among the Tombstones” might be better than I’m giving it credit for, but I found myself wishing for someone else in the lead role. The world might be in love with Neeson all over again, but I find myself wishing he wasn’t coming on so strong.
A Walk Among Tombstones
Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
Directed by Scott Frank