Monday, 22 September 2014

Ghostwatch: "A Walk Among the Tombstones"

Where once Liam Neeson proclaimed authoritatively on history, now he shambles through the listless business of countless airport novels. A Walk Among the Tombstones is Out of Sight screenwriter Scott Frank's attempt to keep his hand in by adapting one of Lawrence Block's private-eye thrillers, but it counts as a pallid alternative to his leading man's recent thick-ear entertainments: it takes in just enough action to be marketed as another punch-'em-up, but is 75-80% shots of Big Liam exiting buildings while doing up his big brown coat, so as to keep out the chill of whichever Canadian tax haven is passing for New York. Frank presumably spied a chance to deliver a classic writer's movie: his script spills over with lengthy passages of exposition dressed up as storytelling, and riffs - like the period-establishing obsession with the Y2K bug - that never pay off. The gifted cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master) works up a muted, 1970s naturalism-inspired palette, distinguishing the film from the chaotic, camera-rattling sensation of the Taken franchise, but the character work it frames is thin, to say the least. 

Neeson, who would surely have been a shoo-in to play Lee Child's towering tough Jack Reacher before Tom Cruise's star power rendered all other claims moot, approaches the role of kindly PI Matt Scudder rather dolefully, like a diabetic handed a tin of sweets as a consolation prize. A recovering alcoholic whose dominant characteristic is a gently ruffled decency, Scudder inspires the following (not inaccurate) assessment from the sickly homeless kid (Brian "Astro" Bradley) to whom he provides shelter and a steady stream of afterschool-special homilies: "Amish got more flavour than you." This mildness is a problem for the film, as Scudder's quarry - a pair of sociopaths busy kidnapping women, pocketing the ransom fee and then chopping up their bodies anyway - are played by central casting no-marks, and described by witnesses thus: "You wouldn't notice them unless they spoke to you." Again, it's not inaccurate, but it leaves us watching a ghost of a hero chasing after two nothings: at least the evil Arabs and Eastern Europeans Neeson was pursuing in the Takens had the heft and colour of robust stereotypes. 

You come away from A Walk Among the Tombstones disappointed, and mulling over the possibility that the Frank sensibility may just be too refined for the lipsmacking demands of pulp. Time and again, the camera retreats from anything that might be accused of being mindless, gratuitous or trashy, holding the action, often observed from the other side of the street, at arm's length; the final act is a long-seeming negotiation that resembles Ransom as replayed by a filmmaker more milquetoast than Ron Howard. If Frank hoped to initiate a Scudder franchise, his film is far too tentative, more reminiscent of pre-cable TV pilots than anything contemporary audiences ought really be paying to see on the big screen, and further evidence of Hollywood's sudden, summer loss of commercial confidence: unlike Luc Besson, they couldn't even get a Liam Neeson action movie to work. Eventually, Frank permits Scudder to get down-and-dirty with the bad guys in a nondescript suburban basement, but overlaying all this knuckle-dusting with the sounds of someone in Scudder's AA group reciting the twelve steps closes the book on a film altogether too sober for its own good.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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