Lawrence Block ought to be pleased.
A prolific and award-winning writer of crime novels since the 1970s, Block has apparently been loath to have his books adapted into films. Only one of them up until now, Eight Million Ways to Die, was made into a film in 1986 and it was a critical and commercial bomb.
A Walk Among the Tombstones, a more faithful version of the source material also featuring ex-alcoholic private eye Matt Scudder, is likely to rectify that first misstep.
Block’s Scudder tales tend to explore the dark side on life in the Big Apple and, in that sense, the film holds true to the style.
The story opens with a flashback sequence of sorts, bedraggled cop Scudder in 1991, getting semi-loaded (free) in a bar when robbers break in and waste the bartender. In pursuit, Scudder kills two and wounds a third.
Flash forward eight years and Scudder is cleaned up and sober, working as an unlicensed private eye taking on investigative jobs for cash “gifts.” Writer/director Scott Frank wisely withholds the reason for Scudder’s sobriety until later in the film.
When a drug dealer hires Scudder to find the men who kidnapped and killed his wife (despite the paid ransom), the case leads him down a dark rabbit hole in a hunt for two vicious thrill killers who’ve decided it’s time to make their mayhem pay by going after people who can’t easily go to the police.
Frank has shrewdly chosen Liam Neeson to play Scudder and Neeson is terrific in the role, wholly believable as a not-overly sentimental ex-cop who has pretty much seen it all and uses old-fashioned gumshoe techniques and instinct to get to the heart of the mystery.
With his gauntness and sombre air, Neeson also fits the character physically and manages a pretty decent New York City accent without overdoing it.
There’s also some good supporting work from Dan Stevens as the grieving but vengeful husband, David Harbour as Ray, the more talkative of the two killers, and Adam David Thompson as his mostly silent partner.
The case is pretty grisly, though Frank keeps the explicit violence to the minimal required. There’s a very brief opening sequence of a woman in mortal distress that is blood-free but chillingly effective.
A climactic scene, in which the 12 steps of Alcohols Anonymous are intoned, is somewhat gratuitous, despite how central the issue of sobriety is to Scudder’s character. Block purists would note that Scudder would never flash his old police badge to get information. But these are minor quibbles.
Frank creates a pervasive mood of tension and dread throughout — much helped by Carlos Raphael Rivera’s melancholy score — while negotiating a complex storyline, making Tombstones a solid entry into the film noir genre.
If Scudder returns to the silver screen, he couldn’t be in better hands than Frank’s.