Back in the day when John Wayne was a box-office giant, the knock on him was that, in his Westerns at least, he played variations of the same character, usually a gunfighter who followed his own moral compass, a man who could be counted on in a crisis but one who seemed more comfortable wielding a gun than engaging in working or intimate relationships.
Liam Neeson of late has stepped into a role that he does well, that of a flawed man whose skills put him in a dangerous world. There he thrives, while his personal life is a shambles. The characters in his most recent high-profile movies — Bryan Mills in “Taken” and “Taken 2,” Ottway in “The Grey” and Bill Marks in “Non-Stop” — fit snugly into this mold.
Neeson is not only good in this role, he draws us into his characters, and that has paid off in these movies. His work is a major asset in “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” classified as a crime thriller mystery that is not all that thrilling and does not even try to be a whodunit mind bender.
Based upon the novel by Lawrence Block, “Tombstones” is written and directed by Scott Frank, who did a superb job of adapting two of Elmore Leonard’s novels — “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty” — to the screen. In those movies, it was not the crimes, but the characters, that carried the story. Frank makes that same effort with “Tombstones,” and the results are mixed.
Neeson’s character is Matt Scudder, who when the movie begins, is a plainclothes New York City cop in 1991. While he is indulging in some free drinks in a bar, three ill-fated robbers hit the place, and moments later, Scudder has taken them down with gunfire, two of them fatally.
The movie jumps ahead to 1999 and now Scudder is an unlicensed private investigator and a an alcoholic who has been dry for a while. Unfortunately, the trailers for “Tombstones” reveal why he left the police force, which diminishes the emotional impact when it is detailed in the movie.
One evening in 1999, Scudder encounters Howie (Eric Nelson), a fellow Alcoholics Anonymous member, who says that his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) could use Scudder’s services.
Scudder meets with Kenny, who tells him his wife Carrie was kidnapped and even though a ransom was paid, Carrie was murdered, dismembered and left in the trunk of an abandoned car. Kenny wants Scudder to find the men who did this and bring them to him.
Kenny seems well off financially and finally admits to Scudder he is a drug trafficker but plans on getting out once he builds a nice nest egg. Scudder refuses to take the case initially but soon is drawn back in. He then learns through his investigation that these kidnappers have done this before and Scudder believes they will do it again.
While in a public library checking out microfilm for old newspaper articles on these crimes, Scudder meets TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless boy who latches onto Scudder because he wants to become a private investigator some day. Scudder tries to discourage him but soon the two develop a unique kinship.
The identities of the two kidnapper-killers are revealed about midway through the movie as Ray (David Harbour, seen most recently as Reed Ackley in “Manhattan”) and Albert (Adam David Thompson), but beyond that little else is exposed about these two characters. They live together, but whether they are intimately involved or just partners in crime who share a home is never addressed.
The only real mysteries in “Tombstones” are why these two became serial kidnapper-killers, and what are their motivations for singling out certain people for their crimes. This assures some lively post-movie discussions and prevents “Tombstones” from stumbling into what can seriously erode a crime thriller — the obligatory monologue by the bad guys as to why they commit these atrocities.
Amid Scudder’s investigation, Ray and Albert strike again, this time abducting the teen daughter of another drug trafficker. These two guys, however demented their intentions, are very good at covering their tracks. Meanwhile, Scudder, without the resources of a law enforcement agency, must rely on a motley crew of associates that include the revenge-minded Kenny, the drug-addled Howie and the street kid TJ. It seems like a major mismatch.
A lot of the footage shows Scudder walking among the broken down areas of New York City, interviewing people and finding little evidence to go on until he questions a groundskeeper, James Loogan (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who works at a cemetery where the remains of an earlier victim had been disposed.
Frank’s screenplay ties in redemption with Scudder’s efforts to bring down the two killers, and the movie plods along at a slow pace. “Tombstone” tries to be a thinking person’s crime mystery, but too much information is left out to make it memorable in the end. Nevertheless, Neeson once again brings out a character haunted by inner demons who can only find meaning when he has to immerse himself in the muck of the worst of humanity.