A Walk Among the Tombstones

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 19, 2014

Liam Neeson stars in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones'
Liam Neeson stars in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones'  (Source:Universal Pictures)

"Liam Neeson movies" have become their very own subgenre. They've got their own framework, running themes, and tics: Neeson is so often playing a grizzled old man ("The Grey," "Taken") who's struggled with alcohol ("Non-Stop") and now needs to return to the talents of his prime days in order to conquer some despicable bad guys ("Unknown.")

That all holds true in "A Walk Among the Tombstones," where Neeson plays a former-cop-current-P.I. hired to track down some misogynistic criminals who are horrifically murdering the loved ones of local drug dealers. At this point, Neeson -- a walking spectre of regret -- feels a bit like a special spice you add onto otherwise tired action movies. Need some pathos? Just sprinkle some Liam on it.

"Tombstones" needs that Liam-help desperately. It opens up as a wannabe-"Dirty Harry" (we watch from a POV set behind the barrel of a gun, ready to get ourselves off, as Neeson fires on and ruthlessly kills a bunch of nondescript thieves) and then continues to descend further into the apparent visceral pleasures of implied violence. The movie -- it's set in the '90s, which apparently looked like the 2010s, only with some vaseline on the corner of the frames and a Clint-Eastwood-y blue filter over everything -- catches up with Neeson eight years after that shootout. He's dropped his badge and his gun, and is making due as an unlicensed private detective, spending his days in AA and his nights doing shady mystery-novel type stuff. In case you didn't realize what tradition this movie was working in, it takes pains to remind you: Neeson's cutesy teenaged sidekick references Sam Spade in every other scene.

Anyway, with the setup out of the way, let's cut to the chase. Director Scott Frank's "Tombstones" is an excessively unpleasant viewing experience, full of extremely specific sexualized violence against females. The psychopath killers use information obtained illicitly from the DEA to kidnap and murder the wives and daughters of drug dealers. (There's more than a few upsides to their modus operandi: They get to make snuff tapes of the rapes and killings, and no one will ever investigate them thoroughly because nobody cares about the plight of drug dealers.)

One of those drug dealers retains Neeson's detective, and we're off to the races. As far as Frank's concerned, you can tell a lot more thought went into the misogyny than did the rest of the film. The dialogue even comes most alive, springing awake with idiosyncrasies, at the moments where our killers are threatening violence. Dinner table conversations in "Tombstones" will dull you to tears, but hey, look on the bright side: There are real lingual flourishes happening whenever one of the killers threatens to cut one of their captors' nipples off, or something else akin to that.

"Tombstones" is entirely defined by the sense of dread conjured up by those horrible actions against women, but it's never confrontational enough to actually show that violence in an explicit manner. (For better or worse, this is a film that'll be happy to show you severed fingers, but never wants to deal with the unpleasantness of watching those fingers get severed.) Director Frank wants to get us all worked up against these sociopaths, so that we won't feel at all queasy when Neeson goes on a righteous killing spree later on. He wants to work up our bloodlust so that he can get us clapping when all the bad guys expire by comparably gruesome means. This is what "Taxi Driver" would look like if Martin Scorsese viewed De Niro's Travis Bickle as a holy, justified avenger.

And don't even get me started on the self-righteous solemnity with which Frank overlays audio of AA's 12 steps over Neeson's supposed-to-be-cathartic killing of the Bad Guys -- it's the worst shortcut-to-Seriousness in a whole movie full of them.

"Tombstones" may nod to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but it's more like your average detective-chases-a-serial-killer potboiler that you might half-watch with a cheap beer and some cigarettes on TBS some lazy hungover Sunday morning. The self-serious use of AA standards, the self-righteous presentation of vigilante justice, the unexamined fetishization of sadism -- this is a morally ugly film, and worse yet, it's built of tired bricks. I'm sure some will find fun in the scuzziness of the whole enterprise, but we need only look back to the last few years of Neeson to see how much better he can do. This has none of the fun of "Non-Stop," none of the thrills of "Unknown," none of the sincere psychological inquiry of "The Grey." This movie uses its Neeson, but it doesn't earn it.