On first glance A Walk Among the Tombstones seems to be heading down a similar road to Liam Neeson’s pulse pounding 2008 breakout thriller Taken. The plot sure rings familiar from the opening scenes, which is why Neeson was reportedly leery of signing on.
But this is a Liam Neeson film, which means it is certain to boast a subtle central performance with the power to pull you into the story, even one as utterly bleak as this.
Tombstones begins when private investigator Matthew Scudder (Neeson) is hired to trail two unhinged kidnapper-murderers who target criminals’ wives because they know their drug dealer husbands won’t ever talk to the police. These bad guys depend on fear to cover their tracks and they slip away once their ransom money is paid.
But we soon learn they don’t even play by bad guy rules, because once they get the cash the women they kidnap turn up, but hacked to pieces for insane kicks.
Fasten your seat belts for a very rough ride, in other words. A Walk Among the Tombstones is serial killer flick set on rainy grey streets of late 1990s Manhattan, and from the first frame to the last it’s the darkest thriller in which Neeson has ever starred.
Some things strike you right away. Women barely figure in the film except as objects of anxiety, or lust, or terror.
Instead we’re invited into a world of broken men, some who like Scudder are attempting to redeem themselves through Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and some like the unhinged serial killers who just seem intent on bringing hell to earth.
“I will find you and I will kill you,” is Neeson’s tag line from Taken, spoken to the bad guys over the phone. He could just as easily make the same revenge threat here, but first he has to find the shadowy men who are targeting drug dealer’ wives.
Scudder’s back-story slowly emerges while he’s on the case. Soon we learn he’s been spooked by an incident that occurred some years earlier and brought his law enforcement career to an ignoble halt. But as he discovers exactly the type of people he’s pursuing he starts to wonder if he’s in over his head.
Onscreen Neeson can play hero and ordinary Joe in the same scene convincingly, and this is why he’s perfectly cast in this joltingly dark film about evil and redemption.
Some critics have mentioned Neeson’s later in life arrival as an action hero, but they fail to mention the reason why it always works. He brings both the physical presence and the gravitas of a world-class actor to every role he plays.
“Action heroes used to be for much younger men, but now I get all these scripts where it’s, scratch 35, and now it’s 60,” Neeson told the press this week. No one is more amused by it than himself.
But that unlikely casting is one of the reasons he’s so good in these roles. There’s as much sensitivity in his gaze as there is fury, which makes him remarkable to watch.
Neeson had enough personal experience of seeing what guns can do to a nation growing up in Ballymena, Co. Antrim. He got his first major roles in Belfast’s Lyric theatre in the 1970s just as the North was tearing itself apart in the darkest years of The Troubles. He knows in his bones what men with guns can do.
There’s more going on in Tombstone to provoke questions about the film’s message, which is complex and at times deeply controversial.
As the film moves toward its climax we’re invited to think about the 12 steps AA members take toward a life free of addiction. That these 12 steps are full of religious references to God and spirituality is underlined by the climatic shootout in a graveyard, complete with backlit crucifixes to underline we’re in the presence of a metaphor.
But as is often the case in the Bible, the women in this film are pawns. They’re there to be kidnapped, tortured and mutilated by a pair of sadistic psychopaths in scenes that will deeply unnerve you long after the final reel.
To make the point of just how evil this pair of irredeemable rapists is, Scudder finally refers to them as “you and your boyfriend.” This is longstanding Hollywood shorthand -- not only are they evil rapists, see, they’re gay! Shudder.
I’m not sure exactly who will be lining up this week to see this relentlessly dark and savage film, which is over egged toward the end with religious symbolism concerning sin and redemption, but I would advise you it’s not typical date night fare.
If you and your significant other want to walk home in the dark wondering if rapists and psychopaths are idly following you in an unmarked van, A Walk Among the Tombstones is quite certain to do the trick.
Next up Neeson will play a 17th-century Jesuit priest in Japan in Martin Scorsese’s film Silence, but he’s also gearing up to play another hit man in Run All Night. Then Taken 3 awaits. It seems that action heroes and guns are still in his future, but I hope that women will get a word in in the forthcoming scripts.