Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Movie Review - A Walk Among The Tombstones

A promising commercial for a Liam Neeson action movie!

  Ever since I saw the iconic movie ‘Taken’ I’ve made it a point to get to the theatres to see Liam Neeson action movies whenever I can. Taken had Neeson playing retired CIA operative Bryan Mills in an action-packed adventure to get his daughter back after she had been kidnapped by Albanian human traffickers. The role was reprised in 2012’s ‘Taken 2’ when Mills and his wife are kidnapped by the families of all the Albanian human traffickers Mills killed in the first move. I enjoyed the sequel but not nearly as much as the original.

  Earlier this year I went to see ‘Non-Stop’ in which Neeson plays Bill Marks, a former cop and alcoholic turned Federal Air Marshal who uncovers a plot to detonate a bomb that has been planted on his flight. As part of the plot, Marks is framed as the bomber but manages to save almost everyone on the plane despite the bomb going off in mid-air. It was an entertaining enough movie but no ‘Taken’, focusing too much on detective work and Marks’ shady past and not nearly enough action.

  This has been Neeson’s typical role in his action movies since Taken – a retired tough-guy who can still bring it. His movies have been missing the action element of Taken, where he kills almost a dozen bad guys in 45 seconds, shoots his best friend’s wife in the arm in order to get information, has a car chase through a construction site resulting in explosions and car crashes and construction site damage along with many other scenes of gratuitous violence broken up by a small amount of detective work and witty dialogue. This weekend’s new movie releases included another Liam Neeson action movie ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’. The commercials looked promising – Neeson listens to a man telling him his wife got kidnapped and then listens to a tape of the man’s wife screaming. Thinking there could be nothing more Taken-like, Kathy and I made plans to see it when it opened this past weekend.

  A couple of work emergencies had me putting in enough time during the week that I was able to take Friday afternoon off and go with Kathy to the afternoon matinee at the local movie theatre. $25.50 later we were armed with popcorn, soda, and two tickets which allowed us to take our place among the other 11 movie-goers.

  The film starts in 1991 with a healthy dose of action. Neeson is a long-haired, bearded New York City detective who leaves his partner in their car to head into a bar for a couple of drinks. Two men walk in to the bar to rob it and shoot the bartender dead. Neeson chases the men into the street, shoots and kills one robber and then shoots the fleeing getaway driver dead while the second robber runs away. Neeson shoots the remaining crook in the leg and follows him as he limps to a secluded alley where he proceeds to shoots him dead. It was a fine start to an action movie.

  The movie then flashes ahead to 1999 although the only way I would have known if I hadn’t been told was the billboards, bumper stickers, and signage urging people to be prepared for Y2K and the oversized computer monitors. We see a woman being fondled by two men and then shown the duct tape covering her mouth and we can safely assume she is the kidnap victim.

  Meanwhile Neeson is in an AA meeting and introduced to us as retired detective Matt Scudder, who now has short hair and no beard and works as an unlicensed private investigator. Scudder recounts the tale of the shooting which seems to have been so traumatic that he not only quit the police force – he quit drinking. Once the AA meeting ends, Scudder goes to a local diner for a steak when he is joined by one of his AA cohorts who wants Scudder to meet with his brother Kenny Kristo because Kenny has a problem. Scudder meets with him and finds out Kristo’s wife had been kidnapped and killed after the ransom had been paid and that Kenny is a drug trafficker. Scudder turns down the $20,000 in cash to find the kidnapper/murderers but changes his mind after learning of the exceptionally grisly nature of the crime.

  Even though there was no kidnap victim to rescue, I was hoping for a fast paced adventure of finding the kidnappers and exacting revenge much like the movie Taken. Instead I felt like I was watching a misfit version of another film starring Neeson – ‘The A-Team’. Scudder does most of the slow-moving detective work in between AA meetings to locate the kidnappers and find out the full scope of their heinous crimes. While he is researching microfilm in the New York Library he joins forces with a homeless teenager named T.J. Scudder gets T.J. to do his research on the Internet and visits him in the hospital after T.J. gets busted up for stealing a gang members gun. Rounding out the team is Kenny Kristo and his brother Peter, who is shooting heroin when not attending AA meetings.

  Scudder learns the names of one of the villains, discovers that they are serial killers, and even how they pick their victims but has no luck tracking them down until they kidnap the daughter of one of Kenny’s drug trafficking rivals. Scudder inserts himself into the negotiations as the point man and sets up the payoff in a cemetery for the first of two climactic scenes. After a shootout at the cemetery, Scudder and remaining members of his ‘team’ (I don’t want to give away too much) track the murderers to their hideout and the final climactic and grisly end (which is performed to the recitation of the AA 12 step creed).

If you look up the definition of 'action' in a dictionary you'll probably find these clips from the movie 'Taken'

  The murders are all done off screen with a few flashback glimpses of torture but are nothing that I would consider eye-raising. Compared to the ‘Criminal Minds’ reruns on ION television that I’ve been watching the crimes in this movie are downright pedestrian. There are two serial killers who we only know by their first names and while they seem equally creepy I did enjoy the performance of David Harbour as Ray who was the chattier of the pair and the one who makes the phone calls to extract the ransom and talk to the kidnap victims.

  Aside from Neeson’s workman like effort and Harbour’s professional performance I thought rest of the cast was nondescript at best although the stereotypical characters probably give them much to work with. The film was adapted from the 1992 novel by Lawrence Block which is one of many featuring the recovering alcoholic Scudder. I think the filmmakers tried too hard to integrate the AA meetings and 12 steps into the movie. While those characteristics are central to who Matt Scudder is as a fictional character in novels these traits have the luxury of being developed over thousands of pages in years of novels. The task of trying to make them the central theme of a two hour movie led to a disjointed and slow moving storyline in which any small amount of action was met by yet another AA meeting, lecture by Scudder to the youthful T.R., or some slow-moving detective work.

  I can't fault 'A Walk Among the Tombstones' for not being as good as Taken when so few movies are but I can and will fault it for being slow moving with so little action. Even if I were to consider it a mystery movie the main characters are all pretty unlikeable - drug addicts or drug dealers or alcoholics or serial killers. The only characters I felt any sympathy for are T.J. (the homeless petty thief) and the kidnap victims (who aren't on screen very much). As much as I enjoyed the movie Taken and Neeson’s take no prisoner performance in it, I felt I got taken by ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’. This movie was advertised as an action movie but it was really a mystery movie and a slow moving one at that. I would have been better off keeping my $25 in my pocket and laying out 6 quarters at the Redbox in a few months. The movie grossed $13 million on it's opening weekend which is more than enough to keep Liam Neeson in starring roles considering its $48 million dollar budget but I won’t be watching any Liam Neeson ‘action’ movies in the theatres until I get one from Redbox and it so action-packed that I wish I had seen it in the theater.

These geese in Marshalltown, Iowa channeled their inner Liam Neeson...