The Liam Neeson reinvention rages on with A Walk Among the Tombstones, another film in which the aging Irishman kicks ass. This outing is more mystery than rampage, as Neeson's former cop investigates a series of brutal murders. He doesn't even throw his first punch until almost an hour in. His participation is integral to the film's appeal. Otherwise, it's an above-average episode of Law and Order.
A Walk Among the Tombstones begins with an exhausted sigh out of Neeson's mouth, and the first scene predates the main events by six years. In the intervening years, his Matthew Scudder has only gotten more weary. Formerly a cop and now a private eye, he's recruited to find the men who kidnapped and murdered Kenny Kristo's (Dan Stevens) wife. Kristo is a wealthy drug distributor, but Scudder no longer cares for those kind of distinctions. He is interested in bringing the killers to justice, especially after listening to the tape Kristo was sent that documented his wife's death. In the course of his investigation, Scudder encounters a tech-savvy street urchin named TJ (Brian Bradley), who tags along despite Scudder's insistence that he stay out of it. While Scudder is hunting for the murderers, the two men scout out their next, younger target.
There's a lurid, exploitative tack to this film that rears its ugly head early and often. Outside of an 80's slasher film, it's unexpected to see attempts at generating gross titillation out of women in peril. A Walk Among the Tombstones explicitly engages in this during the opening credits. Soft-focus, gauzy shots in bright light lovingly capture close-ups of a woman's body. Led to believe they're watching a love scene, maybe with Neeson's old love interest, the viewer is then horrified to see that by the time Frank's name is flashing across the screen, the nameless woman was being raped all along. Cool trick, bro. Equally repulsive scenes are included as the film continues. Scenes like these are to be expected in a gritty crime drama, but Frank dials up the grotesquerie to eleven. They become especially unnecessary when Frank devises ways to communicate the kidnappers' detestable nature in more inventive ways. The manner in which Kristo finds his wife's body says all that needs to be said about the manner of her death without showing the suffering. The more talkative kidnapper, played by David Harbour, is reptilian in his vileness, a character so repulsive that just his manner of speaking is enough to make the viewer's skin crawl. The inclusion of him and his partner at 'work' is extra, and detracts mightily.
The rest of A Walk Among the Tombstones is predictable genre work. The younger, eager sidekick to the jaded protagonist with a checkered past, the refusal to initially sign on, the parceled-out twists and turns, it's all a checklist for noir tropes. Frank's previous writing credits include Out of Sight and Minority Report, novel takes on cop and sci-fi films. Maybe he adapted those from better source material, but this lack any of those earlier films' inventiveness. There's a slim thread of men trying to help women and dooming them to dreadful outcomes, but it's buried beneath the exploitative aspects. While the script is cribbing from its forebears, Frank does get some impressive sequences on camera. A home invasion sequence is appropriately terrifying. The kidnappers project an aura of menace, aided by Frank's use of slow-motion or colored lighting, and they steal the film from Neeson's gravelly vocal cords. With more experience as a writer, it's surprising that Frank does better behind the camera, but that's absolutely the case.
A Walk Among the Tombstones is aiming low, and accomplishes its goal of being one of the many cat-and-mouse, cop-criminal films. Those credits, one of the more despicable acts of cinematic misdirection in recent memory, set the tone for the ugliness that's coming. Neeson can do this kind of role in his sleep, and I doubt more effort on his part would've purged the bad feelings associated with the film. He'll go on to punch cheetahs in the face, or slum it with Seth MacFarlane, leaving this trial behind. Hopefully, Frank can write a role for a woman that doesn't involve her being in danger of being assaulted. C-