Although it’s set in 1999, the film itself feels twenty years old. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a standard-issue detective mystery that shows us the two killers early on. With that revealed, the only suspense left is to why these two homoerotic killers pick women to kidnap for ransom, torture and kill (even by the end you won’t necessarily be satisfied by any true psychological answers). Liam Neeson is called upon for the heroic private detective role, and he’s good. But he’s also been good elsewhere, in better movies with thrills you were genuinely taken by.
Neeson (as Matt Scudder) gets propositioned by a bourgeois drug trafficker to track down the men who killed his wife after they collected a big ransom. The two killers, targeting shady businessmen with big bucks, must have collected enough ransom to retire by now. But no, they keep collecting women and a teenage girl who needs an 11th hour save by Scudder’s negotiating brilliance.
The film attempts to give us an interesting gallery of characters. Most successfully, Scudder takes heart to a young African-American boy named T.J. (Astro) doing some hustles on the street who is willing to be bought to do anything for ten bucks. There is some colorful restaurant dialogue where the kid talks about sodas being a sperm-killer, a drink for poor people and other observations about eating meat. When Scudder makes TJ his co-detective, and while “Tombstones” stands out with a chance on exploring the big brotherhood mentor theme, it too often doesn’t exploit the relationship to any valuable importance. We are glad the kid is in the story, but there’s not enough detail there to wring our emotions.
I was pleased to learn in the opening credits that Scott Frank is the writer-director behind this, because for years he excelled in scripting first-rate thrillers (“Minority Report,” “Out of Sight”), and his 2007 directorial debut was the estimable “The Lookout” with a couple of terrific performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jeff Daniels. “Tombstones” rides on the coattails of Neeson and Astro, and to be honest, I’m not really going to remember anybody else even though Frank does his best to give everybody shades of character. Frank’s work with the camera is noble — there’s no wobbly-cams or jerky moves, it’s clean craftsmanship.
But with so many kidnapping stories before it, I was never convinced this derivative story had to be told in the first place. There are two very unpleasant scenes of gratuitous violence, which also brought down my respect of it a notch. I also want to mention that Scudder is made to be a recovering alcoholic, and comparisons drawn to the recovery of the girl and to the AA 12-step manifesto are not only labored but awkward. It’s an instance where Frank tries to force meaning into this oft-told story, but for us, there’s nothing gained.
SUSPENSE-THRILLER / ADULT ORIENTATION / SUNDAY NIGHT SNOOZER
Film Cousins: “The Candy Snatchers” (1973); “Obsession” (1976); “Jennifer 8″ (1992); “Gone Baby Gone” (2007).