(Scott Frank, 2014)
A Walk Among the Tombstones is a classical - almost generic - detective noir. And in the modern filmmaking climate of bombast and narratives so post-modern they're self-reflexive without even knowing it, that makes it feel almost radical in its purity and simplicity.
Adapted by writer-director Scott Frank (who has had success with tricky crime adaptations like Out of Sight and Get Shorty in the past) from one of Lawrence Block's long-running Matt Scudder novels, it casts Liam Neeson as the hero, a recovering alcoholic and ex-NYPD detective who now works as a private and unlicensed investigator. Refreshingly, Scudder is not the invincible super-warrior Neeson has played in the Taken films. Instead he is made a little vulnerable by his continued attendance at AA meetings. He takes a couple of beatings here, though his dry wit and fearlessness more than compensate in ensuring he still feels like a hard-boiled tough guy. Neeson is a rare action actor who is equally comfortable with emotional drama, and he gives Scudder a weighty soulfulness and melancholy. That is mostly expressed in the scenes depicting his relationship with TJ, a precocious street kid who fancies himself a detective.
The case brings a streak of nastiness to the film that all the best detective stories really need; throwing a tarnished white Knight into opposition against pure evil raises the stakes massively, and here that pure evil is in the form of two men who abduct the wives and girlfriends of drug dealers and traffickers and torture and kill them. Scudder is put on the case by Kenny (Dan Stevens), a middle class trafficker who paid the ransom demanded by the voice on the telephone and then had his wife delivered in small bags. Digging deep he discovers that these men are serial kidnappers, their depravity shocking.
It all leads, of course, to the sort of extreme ultra violence and gunplay that led Scudder to quit the police, and which Frank shoots with the same sort of classical precision which characterises most of the films old-fashioned virtues. It feels a little like the sort of modest crime adaptation that thrived in the '60s and '70s - Frank knows how this sort of pulp works, understands its pleasures and delivers them. He gets how important the villains are, he can see how crucial a strong sense of place is, and his film takes the time to do both these things right. It is tight, atmospheric, and commendably streamlined in its accurate recreation of the world of Block's novels. It's good to see a star like Neeson use his profile to get a film like this made.