By Chaz Lipp
Mild spoilers follow – proceed with caution.
Someone’s been taken – time to call in Liam Neeson. In A Walk Among the Tombstones, Neeson portrays former NYPD officer Matthew Scudder. Since retiring in disgrace after accidentally (and drunkenly) killing a child while pursuing a perp, Scudder has been working as an unlicensed private detective. Drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) approaches Scudder for help after his wife is abducted. The new wrinkle is she’s already been killed – Kenny paid the ransom, but the kidnappers terminated her anyway.
There’s a lot to like in Tombstones (based on a novel of the same name by Lawrence Block), not the least of which being the retro tone maintained by writer-director Scott Frank. The movie is set during the ‘90s and Scudder is an internet-avoiding technophobe. But the stylistic ambiance recalls cop dramas from the ‘70s. Dialogue and character quirks count for something here. Scudder develops a mentor/surrogate father relationship with a homeless teen, TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley). The friendship/partnership is smartly played by both actors, though TJ’s character arc is frustratingly incomplete. The pacing throughout is almost leisurely, focusing on details but not always careful to tie said details together. What director Frank doesn’t quite pull off is shoehorning a novel-length plot into slightly less than two hours.
As Scudder becomes more deeply involved in the world of Russian drug lords, the “murdered wife” angle becomes gradually less important. The killers are casually introduced as a middle-aged gay couple, Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson). In a truly bizarre and unmotivated development, they become obsessed with one kingpin’s 13-year-old daughter, Lucia (Danielle Rose Russell). She spontaneously becomes their next target (the moment plays as epiphany – a stalker striking gold – strangely scored to Donovan’s “Atlantis”). These plot turns introduce a rather unsettling and totally uncalled for air of homophobia. Ray and Albert are given no back stories to speak of – the only thing separating them from being a pair of misogynistic psycho killers is the fact that they’re gay. Forget the ‘90s or even the ‘70s, at this point the tone recalls some exploitation trash from an even earlier era, when homosexuals were treated as the sleaziest of perverse social deviants (and as inherently woman-fearing/hating).
Add in Scudder’s AA-fueled Christian crusading, which viewers are liberally hammered over the head with during the film’s climax, and the agenda becomes clear: the Christian conception of God is a prerequisite for redemption and (again, according to the filmmakers) gay people are twisted weirdos. The violence is visceral, with every landed punch packing palpable power. The acting is solid, at least for those lucky enough to have been given characters to play (in this world, women are only to be seen and tortured, but not heard). Tighter focus and an elimination of the gay demonizing could’ve elevated A Walk Among the Tombstones to a much more recommendable level.