After residing in “development hell” for a number of years, “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” the first screen adaptation of crime novelist Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder detective series, emerges as little more than a routine walk among dumb stoners and unsavory characters.
The only outstanding aspects to this unthrillng thriller is another stalwart lead performance by go-to action guy Liam Neeson and a surprising amount of sadism directed at women.
Possibly those behind the production had something like “Silence of the Lambs” in mind when acquiring this book. Without going too deep into a nonsensical comparison between an Oscar-winning best picture and a humdrum private-eye film, “Silence” had a woman as the protagonist and a director knew how to use horror to connect with his viewers’ emotions.
“Walk” has no roles for women other than as terrified victims and uses horror to bludgeon a viewer’s sensibilities, to goose a dull detective procedural with an “ick” factor.
Neeson does hoist the picture on his sturdy back and carries it from start to finish. As always he brings a welcome world-weariness to such film roles. Yet whatever complexity and darkness Block imbues this character with on the printed page fails to gain much traction on the big screen.
In fact, Matt Scudder feels like a pallid imitation of an Elmore Leonard hero. (Indeed the film’s writer-director Scott Frank penned two of the very best adaptations of Leonard, “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight.”) A Leonard hero is usually not a good guy and often an ex-alcoholic; he does maintain a story’s moral high ground though amid a bunch of crazed punks and criminal bozos.
So does Matt.
Matt, an ex-cop and, yes, AA, is an unlicensed private eye. Why unlicensed? Probably to put him in more jeopardy and make him attractively illegit. He works off the book for people who don’t dare go the the cops — or anyone legitimate.
Like a Brooklyn drug trafficker, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), who comes to Matt — via his strung-out brother Peter (Boyd Holbrook), an AA attendee with Matt — to find the guys who kidnapped then murdered his wife.
In his investigation, Matt meets the movie’s only really interesting character, a homeless teen named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley). TJ is so excited to have a PI as a buddy that he tails Matt everywhere and becomes embroiled in the case himself.
TJ asks him at one point what it takes to be a good detective and Matt responds with the usual clichés about good instincts and luck. But he might have added it helps for a screenplay to tell him where to look for his bad guys.
Because, unaccountably, Matt seems to think that these demented kidnapper-killers have struck before. So he hits the public library to study microfiche of old newspaper accounts of similar crimes.
Oh yeah, you should know that the story takes place 1999 and that Matt is technophobic anyway, shunning all mobile phones and computers.
Why again? I guess this makes him more “interesting” when in fact he’s not. Just a guy willing to spend half a day in a search that might take half an hour on a computer.
However, the search pulls in characters selected for weirdness if not dementia. These include Ray and Albert (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson), the thrill killers who are more excited about torturing and dismembering their female victims than the actual ransom. Not that they don’t collect that as well.
Plus a suspicious, creepy cemetery groundskeeper (Ólafur Darri Ólaffson), a friendly storeowner (Mark Consuelos) with his own nasty secret and a frantic Russian drug dealer (Sebastian Roché). When FBI guys put in a routine appearance, they’re just as witless and arrogant as the bad guys.
Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (“The Master”) gives the New York seedy streets, back alleys and small stores, not to mention the cemetery in the title, a desaturated color palette to accentuate that old-fashioned noir feeling.
Frank can’t tease much suspense out of any of this though. For one thing, the villains are in plain sight the entire time and benefit greatly from the blunders of others. And there’s no one with whom you might empathize. Distraught drug dealers don’t really fit the bill.
Neeson is as always bullet proof so no point worrying about his safety. And you can bet that in a movie where women get bumped off with disgusting viciousness the filmmakers aren’t going to harm a homeless boy.
Indeed one can pretty much guess the moral algebra by which the filmmakers — and Block — calculate who lives and dies at the climax.
Such is this contrived stroll among the grave stones.
Opens: September 19, 2014 (Universal Pictures)
Production: Jersey Films, Double Feature Films, Cross Creek Productions, Exclusive Media, Endgame Entertainment
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook, Adam David Thompson, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Sebastian Roche, Mark Consuelos, Olafur Darri Olafsson
Director/screenwriter: Scott Frank
Based on a novel by: Lawrence Block
Producers: Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Tobin Armbrust, Brian Oliver
Executive producers: Kerry Orent, Adi Shankar, Tracy Krohn, John Hyde, Mark Mallouk, Lauren Selig, Nigel Sinclair, Richard Toussaint, Spencer Silna, Kate Bacon, Guy East
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
Production designer: David Brisbin
Music: Carlos Rafael Rivera
Costume designer: Betsy Heimann
Editor: Jill Savitt
R rating, 114 minutes