Tuesday, September 30, 2014     Volume: 15, Issue: 29

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Santa Maria Sun / Film

This weeks review

'A Walk Among the Tombstones' is a serviceable noir crime drama




Where is it playing?: Bay, Downtown Centre, Park, Stadium 10

What's it rated?: R

What's it worth?: $6.00 (Anna)

What's it worth?: $7.00 (Glen)

User Rating: 0.00 (0 Votes)

Writer-director Scott Frank (The Lookout, writer for Out of Sight, Minority Report, Marley & Me, The Wolverine) adapts Lawrence Block’s novel to the big screen in this story about former NYPD officer-cum-private investigator Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson), who’s hired by a drug dealer (Dan Stevens) to find out who kidnapped and murdered his wife (Razane Jammal). (113 min.)

Glen: Hard-boiled detective novels and crime fiction have a huge following, and authors such as Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, and Lawrence Block have tons of fans who love to slip into the gritty, dangerous worlds these authors create. On the big screen, such stories often suffer from an overuse of the conventions so ubiquitous in these tales. The question becomes: Does the film transcend these hackneyed conventions? If the answer is “yes,” you can have a helluva entertaining film on your hands. If the answer is “no,” it probably means you’ve got a cliché-ridden, derivative waste of celluloid (well, if movies were still shot on film, that is). So is A Walk Among the Tombstones a yes or a no? I’d say it’s mostly a yes. Sure, all the conventions are there—a formerly liquor-soaked detective trying to make good; an unwanted sidekick needing to be taken under a wing; and inexplicably evil men who need their comeuppance—but Neeson plays a great tough guy with a heart. This isn’t another Taken. Neeson’s Matt Scudder is a wounded soul, a guy who knows he’s got karmic debts that can never be fully paid. Watching him do bad things in the name of good turns out to be pretty entertaining.

Anna: I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Liam Neeson playing the same character in this film as he did in the Taken films, but this is most certainly a different character. While I can’t speak to the book, the film slowly gives clues as to why Scudder is the way he is: why he doesn’t drink anymore, why he left the police force, and what has caused him to be a broken loner and rather reluctant hero. It has the trappings of a gritty crime flick, but manages to rise above mediocrity and into a pretty entertaining flick. While it isn’t anything novel or groundbreaking in the genre, Neeson and his self-appointed sidekick kept me invested in both the characters and the plot line.

Glen: Said “sidekick” is TJ, a homeless kid who spends most of his time in the public library, and when he manages to find a meal, it’s got to be vegetarian. Played by 18-year-old rapper and former X-Factor contestant Astro, aka Brian Bradley, TJ brings a decidedly current bent to this old-fashioned detective story. First, he’s a street kid who isn’t a feral rat out for himself, which breaks genre conventions right there. He’s clearly looking for a role model, but he’s smart enough to be wary of Scudder. Soon, however, he discovers the good in the grizzled detective and admires his code of honor. This relationship shores up the notion that Scudder is a redeemable person despite his shortcomings. The story itself is especially seedy since Scudder’s not helping out an upstanding citizen but instead a drug dealer, and it soon becomes clear that the people who kidnapped and killed one drug dealer’s wife are targeting the loved ones of other drug dealers. More still, we soon discover it’s not just about the money. These perpetrators are genuinely evil. This isn’t as bleak and raw (or as good) as a film like Se7en, but it’s a serviceable crime thriller with enough mystery, twists and turns, and surprising moments for me to recommend seeing it if you’re into these kinds of stories. Generally speaking, it’s probably more of a guy movie. It can move slowly. Still, I enjoyed watching Scudder walk through his noir-ish world, trying to piece together clues, deal with thugs and the police, and eventually solve the case. Like any good noir film, the resolution isn’t necessarily clean. Scudder lives in a dirty world, and everyone who lives in the dirt gets dirty.

Anna: I thought it was interesting that Scudder wasn’t helping the “good guy,” but was instead aiding drug dealers. At first he’s reluctant to help, but after hearing a tape sent by the killers of one of their victims, he makes the decision to track them down. I’m not sure why the killers focused on the families of drug dealers; perhaps there’s more of a backstory in the novels that isn’t made clear in the film. They were definitely creepy characters, roving the streets in their van and stalking women until the right time came and they could nab them. They clearly enjoyed torturing their victims and their families, who would receive the cut-up remains of their loved one even when the ransom was paid. Scudder’s backstory is told in rather halting bursts, many times through him telling his story at AA meetings. It isn’t until he confides in TJ that the whole truth of what drove him to quit drinking is revealed. His AA meetings play a big role in the film, with the final scene being cut back and forth to a woman reading the 12 steps. It was moody and a bit slow, and certainly not Neeson at his best, but it is worth a watch if crime drama is your thing.


Split Screen is written by Sun contributor and New Times Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.