Writer: Scott Frank, Lawrence Block (novel)
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Brian “Astro” Bradley
Running time: 113mins
The lowdown: Liam Neeson heads up one of the year’s best thrillers as retired cop turned private investigator Matthew Scudder. His latest case puts him on the trail of two serial killers who have murdered a drug dealer’s wife, despite the ransom being paid. But, it won’t be an afternoon stroll as the investigation takes Scudder into a world of insanity and murder. Get Shorty and Out Of Sight screenwriter Scott Frank shows a firm directorial hand while adding another fine adaptation to his crime CV with this grimly classy thriller.
The full verdict: At the beginning of A Walk Among the Tombstones a violent armed robbery spills out onto the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s sudden, brutal and shocking. Moments later subtly unnerving credits reveal another dark surprise.
These scenes sum up the movies, which has emerged almost from nowhere to become a contender for 2014’s top thriller. Everything looks normal, if run down, in Scott Frank’s film, but peer through the dirty glass or the crack in the door and you’re likely to witness a nightmare.
Neeson, who should take more films like this rather than the upcoming Taken 3, brings his grizzled A-game as Scudder, an unlicensed PI picking up dirty jobs after quitting the NYPD and spending most of his time in AA meetings.
A fellow member take him to Kristo (Stevens, impressing again after The Guest), the dealer whose wife was returned in dozens of mock drug pouches.
Kristo’s request is simple, find those who killed his wife and bring them to him. But, as with all good procedurals the path to the truth is a treacherous one to walk.
Based on Lawrence Block’s 1992 novel, but updated to 1999 to place Scudder out of time in a world of mobile phones, the internet and the phantom Y2K menace (and the year Neeson appeared in The Phantom Menace), A Walk Among the Tombstones is essentially a tightly written potboiler.
But, like Jack Reacher, Prisoners and Gone Baby Gone, although the film may not be quite as smart as it looks, it’s a cracking story well-executed.
Working from his own script, Frank directs with an omnipresent sense of dread, typically in weak autumnal afternoon light or blackest night.
Frequently dread becomes terror when the focus shifts to the serial killer double act, professional monsters in pressed handyman suits, changing the colour and business stenciling on their van after each abduction and so good at what they do most snatches occur in broad daylight.
And Frank even manages to riff something new on the hoary old basement climax chestnut and Neeson barking threats into a phone (demonstrating how Taken should have been done).
Add to this frequent unpredictable character decisions (avoid the trailer which gives away a gasp-out-loud example) and a nice extended family of misfits that Scudder unwittingly builds around him and you have a rarity, a Hollywood thriller that relies on plot rather than set-pieces and character over car chases.
There are 16 other Mike Scudder books. Here’s to joining Frank and Neeson as they tackle the next case.