New York, 1999. Unlicensed PI Matthew Scudder (Neeson) goes on the trail of a pair of kidnapper-murderers who target criminals unwilling to go to the police — in this case drug trafficker Kenny (Stevens), whose wife was returned to him cut into pieces after he paid the ransom...
Liam Neeson has said that when he first read the scene in A Walk Among The Tombstones where grizzled gumshoe Matthew Scudder threatens his quarry (a kidnapper) down the phone, his instinct was to walk away from the tombstones. Thankfully, he read on and realised that, despite superficial similarities, Scott Frank’s take on Lawrence Block’s novels was a different breed of thriller to Taken.
In many ways, it’s the anti-Taken. Scudder has little personal investment in his case. He doesn’t pack heat. Although he throws a mean punch, violence is something he avoids if possible, preferring to talk his way out of tricky situations. His particular set of skills involves wheedling information out of people (without resorting to torture), pounding pavements and having “a strong bladder”. He’s an old-school shamus, suspicious of cellphones and computers (interestingly, Frank sets his entire mystery amid the pre-millennial tension of the Y2K scare; as one of the killers observes, “People are afraid of all the wrong things”). Frank has unapologetically served up something talky, complex, grown-up.
Rain-drenched, grey-toned and located in a dilapidated, graffiti-daubed Hell’s Kitchen, this is a dour affair. Tombstones has a thick vicious streak, which while not gratuitous involves the kinds of atrocity you’d expect from a full-on serial-killer thriller. Yet it’s far from one-note. Like Connery, Neeson may never nail the Yank accent, but he sparkles as Scudder, a man tussling with demons but gifted with a wry sense of humour that makes him deeply likable throughout. And, especially in the scenes between Scudder and his unwanted streetkid sidekick TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, fresh from American X Factor), Frank imbues his script with a light and knowing regard for the genre, as if to say the private-eye movie, like Scudder himself, might well seem outmoded, but goddammit it, it still gets the job done.
Like a good butcher’s cleaver, it’s weighty, solid and sharp — an effective matching of director and star in what is hopefully the first of a new film series.