A Detective's 'Walk Among The Tombstones' Is Gripping But Unsatisfying
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
In the mid-'70s, novelist Lawrence Block introduced the character of New York private investigator Matthew Scudder. Block has written 17 novels based on the Scudder character. Scudder's been played on screen by Jeff Bridges in "Eight Million Ways To Die," but that setting was switched to LA, and the film flopped. The new stab at Scudder onscreen is "A Walk Among The Tombstones." Liam Neeson plays Block's hero, and the film is directed by Scott Frank, best known for his script for the Elmore Leonard adaptation of "Out Of Sight." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: For three decades, I've read Lawrence Block novels featuring the unlicensed New York private investigator Matthew Scudder. Played by Liam Neeson in the gripping, but finally unsatisfying film, of "A Walk Among The Tombstones." Scudder is a gumshoe, whose character was formed by alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous. He's always taking time out from detective work to go to meetings. And while block never cites the so-called serenity prayer - God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference - I think it's the key to Scudder's affect. He accepts the world is a violent place. He even allows himself to sit in bars, drinking coffee alongside violent alcoholics.
But when there's something Scudder can control, he's relentless. I'm fascinated by this tension between his grim stoicism and his opponents gleeful sadism. And the bad guys in "A Walk Among The Tombstones" are sadistic indeed. They relish kidnapping women, picking up the ransom and returning their victims as agreed - only cut into tiny pieces. Scudder is summoned by the latest victim's husband, played by Dan Stevens of "Downton Abbey." But he refuses the job when he realizes that Stevens is a drug kingpin.
Then he hears an audio tape of the torture and killing and knows he can't walk away. Scudder is much different from Neeson's other action hero, Brian Mills in the "Taken" movies. He's slower and heavier spirited. He wanders a gray, malignant city still in mourning over something he did years ago while drunk. It's too bad Neeson gives Scudder a broad New York accent, though that hurts less then it might, since that accent is always slipping. In any case, Neeson looks terrific, in his thick coat with the collar turned up, as he walks around Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where pieces of another body were found. Scudder belongs among tombstones. Leaving the graveyard, Scudder follows Jonas, the lumbering, unkempt guard played by a superbly weird actor named Olafur Darri Olafsson, and discovers the man has photos of one of the dead women when she was alive in a rooftop shack beside a pigeon coop. Then, all at once, Jonas appears.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES")
OLAFUR DARRI OLAFSSON: (As Jonas Loogan) You caught me.
LIAM NEESON: (As Matt Scudder) You gave the cops a different address, didn't you? That's why they never put you across the street from Leila.
OLAFSSON: (Jonas Loogan) This is my mother's building. I live in Sunset Park but I'm not allowed to keep my birds there, even though there's room on the roof.
NEESON: (As Matt Scudder) Your mom home right now? Maybe we can go down and talk, have a cup of coffee?
OLAFSSON: (As Jonas Loogan) I can't let you leave here will. They'll kill me if I do.
NEESON: (As Matt Scudder) Who's they, Jonas?
OLAFSSON: (As Jonas Loogan) The other two.
NEESON: (As Matt Scudder) So what, you going to stab me now with that big knife?
OLAFSSON: (As Jonas Loogan) It's going to bother me too, for a long time. I know it will.
NEESON: (As Matt Scudder) How much is it going to bother you if I take that knife away and stick it in your neck?
OLAFSSON: (As Jonas Loogan) Could you really do that?
NEESON: (As Matt Scudder) Yeah, I really could. But I'd rather not.
EDELSTEIN: Scudder prefers talk to unnecessary action, so "A Walk Among The Tombstones" isn't littered with bodies and wrecked cars. It's clear from the measured, one thing after another pacing, that writer-director Scott Frank loves Block's work and Scudder's submerged persona. He's written juicy parts for Dan Stevens, a man of violence, forced to hold himself in check and David Harbour, as the more verbal of the killers, who plays with his victims like a happy child.
Frank's biggest challenge comes with a wayward, homeless African-American teen named TJ, played by Brian 'Astro' Bradley, who talks himself into Scudder's life. It's a sentimental setup, but Bradley has a hard non-angelic face. The banter is funny, and this gray movie can use a little light. I'd be even more enthusiastic about "A Walk Among The Tombstones" if Frank hadn't swapped the books unforgettable ending for a climax so conventional, I can barely remember it. The novel's finale gives the story a grizzly symmetry that's near poetic, and it perfectly illustrates the difference between Scudder's passive acceptance of vengeance and the more hands-on approach of the people around him. I can see, of course, why Block's ending didn't make the cut. Scudder is on the sidelines. It's gag-me- with-a-chainsaw gross. But as it stands, the film feels incomplete, as if a vital body part has been lopped off.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. We'll end today's show with a recording by Jackie and Roy, one the most famous vocal duos in jazz history. Jackie Cain, who was married to Roy Kral, died Monday at the age of 86. Roy Kral, who also played piano on their recordings, died in 2002. Here's one of Jackie and Roy's biggest hits, which was released in 1958.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOUNTAIN GREENERY")
JACKIE AND ROY: (Singing) In a mountain greenery where God paints the scenery. Just two crazy people together, always together. While you love your lover, let blue skies be your coverlet. When it rains, we laugh at the weather. And if you're good, and if I'm good. I'll search for wood, you'll search for wood. So you can, so I can cook. While I stand by looking. Beans could get no keener reception in a beanery. Bless out Mountain Greenery home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.