After Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves took on the East Coast Russian mafia in recent weeks during The Equalizer and John Wick, respectively, writer-director Scott Frank changes things up a little in A Walk Among the Tombstones, his offbeat entry into this fall’s revenge movie sweepstakes, adapted from Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel.
Here, Liam Neeson’s Matt Scudder seems to be barely interested in the concept of revenge. His ex-cop-turned unlicensed private investigator is approached by recovering junkie Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), who wants to recruit Scudder into searching for the men who killed his brother’s wife. Scudder refuses, until brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) comes to him with the gruesome details of how his wife was kidnapped and murdered.
Scudder, you probably don’t recall, was played by Jeff Bridges in the 1986 film 8 Million Ways to Die; while this is an older and wiser version of the character, many of the background details remain the same, including the AA meetings and the traumatic end to Scudder’s police career. A prologue here features Scudder’s involvement in a daytime shootout gone tragically wrong.
As played by Liam Neeson, Scudder is a world-weary figure whose motivation for going into action is markedly different from his character’s motives in the Taken movies. While the theme here is generally revenge, throughout most of the film Scudder is the voice of reason advising characters driven by the more typical revenge-movie emotions against their primal instincts.
Why does Scudder agree to help? Kenny Kristo is a drug trafficker, and what happened to his wife may be part of the game he’s playing (see also: last year’s unforgettable The Counselor). While Kenny is driven by revenge, Scudder has more idealistic notions of justice and doing the right thing. But the film’s strongest theme – hammered home by the downbeat finale – is that sometimes there is no justice, and there is no right thing in a bad situation with bad people.
The villains here are especially slimy and irredeemable. It’s ironic coming after The Equalizer’s Marton Csokas and John Wick’s Michael Nyqvist – both of whom played logical, business-minded baddies that attempted to negotiate with the protagonist – that the villains in this film, which subverts the usual revenge movie clichés, are the ones that we really want to see pay for their actions.
Those villains are a pair of homosexual serial killers played by David Harbour (who, coincidentally, also starred as one of the chief antagonists in The Equalizer) and Adam David Thompson. They also happen to be ex-DEA agents who target those involved in the drug trade for a kidnapping-and-murder scheme. Their characterization is one of the most beguiling things about A Walk Among the Tombstones – they’re the most bizarre and memorable aspect of the film, but they also take you out of the rugged realism the rest of the picture has been building up.
While A Walk Among the Tombstones attempts to subvert genre conventions, it doesn’t always succeed. Some of the film’s weaker moments involve TJ (played by former X Factor contestant Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley), a young inner-city teenager who assists Scudder with his case. The film’s theme also results in a near-total lack of genre movie thrills; pacing can sometimes be an issue.
But while A Walk Among the Tombstones isn’t as exciting as The Equalizer or John Wick, it’s still the class of this fall’s revenge movie crowd, with star Liam Neeson in fine form as the central protagonist. Here, finally, is a film that actually examines and explores the usual revenge movie dynamics instead of simply exploiting them, and while it isn’t a total success, it’s an admirable effort from writer-director Scott Frank.