Series television has robbed theater screens of such longtime staples as the whodunit, the police procedural, and the medical drama. That’s why it’s refreshing to see how filmmaker Scott Frank has reinvigorated the mystery-thriller genre with A Walk Among the Tombstones. It’s violent, creepy, and well-shot on the streets of Brooklyn, New York. The story has a seemingly endless string of surprises in store, but perhaps its strongest asset is its star, Liam Neeson. Who better to portray a former cop and recovering alcoholic?
Few stars command the screen as he does. Melancholy and sardonic, he’s seen it all in his years as a policeman and, more recently, an unlicensed private detective who works off the books and on his own terms. A fellow AA member (Boyd Holbrook) takes him to meet his brother (Dan Stevens), a local drug lord whose wife was brutally murdered after a botched kidnap-and-ransom incident. This sets Neeson on the hunt for the criminals, whom he suspects are in it for more than just the money: these are serial sickos.
Along the way, Neeson acquires an unlikely ally in a savvy street kid named TJ, well played by Brian “Astro” Bradley. Their budding relationship adds a touch of humanity—and humor—to this mostly-grim crime saga.
Director Frank wrote a number of solid screenplays (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) before making an impressive filmmaking debut with The Lookout, one of my favorite underrated films of recent years. A master of adaptation, he has used one of Lawrence Block’s many novels about ex-cop Matt Scudder as the basis for this film, and not only scouted great locations but upped the ante by staging many key scenes at night in the rain. He has filled the supporting roles with mostly unfamiliar faces, which enhances the feeling of surprise and unease he’s trying to create. Ólafur Dari Ólafsson makes a particularly strong impression as an enigmatic cemetery groundskeeper.