If you look at the catalogue of Liam Neeson dad media, there’s only really been two major outliers. At face value, the biggest one may seem to be Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, a moving mediation on death masquerading as a knuckleheaded “man versus wolf” picture. But the one I’d like to discuss is Scott Frank’s period piece, lurid potboiler A Walk Among The Tombstones, a flawed but very watchable exercise in emulating the feel of a grim airport novel.
The basic set-up is simple enough. Neeson is Matt Scudder1 an ex-cop who works as an unlicensed private detective after a traumatic incident on the force caused him to quit. He swore off drinking after that, but still goes to AA meetings where he befriends a man named Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook). Peter directs him to his older brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), a big-shot drug dealer whose wife was kidnapped. After he haggled with the kidnappers for the sum of money that is to be paid as ransom, he’s told to pick her up from the trunk of a car. But, in the first of many lurid touches, he finds instead a trunk full of cocaine bags, with the cut-up pieces of his wife stuffed inside them. After some obligatory refusal of the call, Scudder takes the case and we’re off to the races.
AWATT stands alone from most of the Liam Neeson: Action Hero canon in a few ways. Be they the fun but trashy and problematic Taken and it’s execrable sequels or the genuinely very good flicks he made with Jaume Collet-Serra, all the other films from this period of his career mostly tick the same boxes. They all cast Neeson as a man with a very special set of skills, who finds himself In a – most likely very convoluted – scenario that endangers him or his family. Scudder also has a very special set of skills, but his are of the detective variety. While he gets into a few scrapes and one shoot-out, Scudder is very much a detective first, and action hero second. Though this happens, so it’s not like the film is totally exempt from Collet-Serra-ish shenanigans:
Apart from that, the action scenes are pretty straight-faced and, truth be told, kind of perfunctory. Luckily, they’re not Frank’s main focus here. He’s far more interested on creating an eerie mood and atmosphere. He’s helped in that regard by Mihai Mălaimare Jr.’s stark cinematography, which is very grey but remains dynamic enough as to never appear dull. The version of New York City the film takes place in is continually shrouded in a slight ominous fog, creating the illusion that there’s something very wrong in every place Scudder visits.
And there usually is. Whereas most of Neeson’s action star vehicles stick to a tidy PG-13, AWATT isn’t afraid to go to some dark places. From the uniquely suspenseful opening credits where we see in tight close-ups what appears to be a husband lovingly embracing his wife, before the woman in question is slowly revealed to be crying and restrained to the many scenes in which the two main bad guys (including a pre-Stranger Things David Harbour, clearly relishing the opportunity to portray a total sleazeball) either discuss or carry out their preferred methods of torture, there’s an air of menace to many of the film’s scenes. An air that sometimes comes dangerously close to try-hard edgelordiness.
In fact, the film often feels like a relic from the nineties, in ways both good and bad. In adapting the 1992 book the film is based on for the screen, Frank decided to set the story in 1999, giving it a healthy dollop of Y2K angst; an intriguing choice, that is clearly supposed to signify some sort of thematic throughline, with Harbour’s villain Ray at one point speechifiying about how “people are afraid of all the wrong things.” The idea seems to be that the two villains are somehow taking advantage of people being distracted by the millennium bug, but this notion never really comes to fruition in any meaningful way. Frank definitely gets the feel of the end of the millennium right — you can’t confuse the film for taking place in the present day — but this ends up making the film feel like it should be from the end of the nineties, where it’d slot right in between all the other grim thrillers chasing some of that Se7en money.
That might come across as too negative. I think there’s definitely a lot of charm to how out of its time AWATT feels. Frank – who’s most famous work is as a writer, having written the scripts for Out of Sight and Get Shorty and co-written The Wolverine and Logan – is a better director than he’s given credit for. He lends the movie a great sense of time and place and gets excellent performances out of Neeson, Stevens, Harbour and a fantastically creepy Adam David Thompson as Harbour’s partner in crime.
It’s a decent genre throwback that mostly feels unique in the spectrum of Liam Neeson dad media exactly because it feels so old-fashioned. Whereas even the good films of its ilk usually succumb to hyperactive action-editing, AWATT is patiently cut and paced. It also helps that Scudder is one of Neeson’s most interesting characters. The eventually revealed tragic reason for his retirement is very clichéd, but the thread of his sobriety pays off in interesting ways, as does his relationship with Peter and Kenny.
The biggest problem the film has is the somewhat baffling decision to give Scudder a kid sidekick, in the form of homeless teen TJ (rapper Brian “Astro” Bradley). The TJ character is apparently a fixture in the book series, but really should have been cut from the adaptation. He continually grinds the story to a halt and as a cherry on top speaks in the kind of AAVE that can only be written by a white person. Excise this subplot and you’d end up with a much tighter 90 to 100 minute film, instead of the relatively bloated 113 minutes it’s at now.
As it is, A Walk Among The Tombstones is a well-made, watchable potboiler that really could’ve been something special if a little more thought was put into it. A tighter version of this that really leans into the Y2K angle could’ve been top-tier Action Neeson along with Non-Stop and The Grey, whereas this version slots neatly into the mid-tier alongside the first Taken and The Commuter. Still, it’s deliberate datedness makes it an interesting oddity in a type of film that’s not exactly known for it’s weirdness.