Seemingly out of the blue, Taken rebranded Liam Neeson as the most badass plainspoken vigilante since Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. Ever since, Neeson’s become the go-to guy for brooding, fearless middle-aged shitckicking heroes with very particular skill sets.
For the most part, it’s worked. Non-Stop (2014, and currently on HBO GO) was a thoroughly entertaining flick about a drunken, remorseful air marshall who goes ape during a hostage situation. It basically played out like a game of transatlantic Clue, while simultaneously mishmashing the plots of Flightplan, Con Air and Snakes On a Plane. If anything, it was further proof that like Segal in his prime, if you give the man a gun and a leather jacket, he can make just about anything entertaining.
The Grey (currently on Netflix Instant), was another enjoyable brooding Neeson role, and a solid existential survivalist rip-off of Jack London for folks who don’t like readin’ much.
But there was also the forgettable Taken 2, which was basically Taken sans one of the best pieces of action dialogue ever and a criminal lack of throat-punching. Piggybacking that was Taken 3, or Tak3n, most memorable for Forest Whitaker officially throwing in the towel on his acting career as a DMX-channeling police chief who likes playing with rubber bands. (Really, there’s no need to watch either Taken sequel.)
So look, I know I write about a lot of well-received, artsy European thrillers on here—movies that are far more intelligent and creative than anything in the “Action-Neeson” repertoire—but if you don’t have a soft spot for a grizzled drunken Irishman who plays throat-punching, American super agents without even bothering to forego his brogue, I think you might just be taking things a bit too seriously.
For fans of Action-Neeson, A Walk Among the Tombstones (out on DVD and available through nefarious interweb means) is easily the best thing since Taken—especially if you like the dark, hellbent vein I tend to tap on this here blog.
The film introduces us to Matt Scudder (Neeson as a grisly bearded, racist drunken detective) amidst a whisky-fueled shootout. Predictably, things go awry, and the next thing we know it’s eight years later and Matt is clean-shaven and holding the podium at an AA meeting.
If this premise already sounds contrived, that’s because much of this movie’s narrative—based on a book by Lawrence Block—is. You’ve got your prematurely retired, solitary cop/agent who gets to make things right with the ghosts of his past (see: The Equalizer, The Man from Nowhere, Man on Fire). You’ve got the savvy inner-city kid who gives the loner’s life meaning and gets him to awkwardly repeat street slang (Magnolia, Finding Forrester, Half Nelson). And in terms of contrivances, it’s beyond schlocky when a great final shootout scene is tainted by a solemn voiceover of the 12 Steps.
But I don’t think anyone really came to this movie looking to watch the next Chinatown (overrated in my book, anyway… I know, I know, blasphemy).
What we do get is a stormy, Neeson thriller that’s as bleak and unsettling as anything he’s done to date. As Scudder tracks a duo of sadists who kidnap drug dealers’ wives/girlfriends/daughters for ransom money that usually ends in torturous death, Tombstones only builds in its grim hellishness. Aided by pretty much the entire movie being shot at night or in overcast skies, the end product is something like a hybrid of Kiss the Girls and Mystic River.
Speaking of which, the main thing that sets Tombstones apart from the rest of the Action-Neeson repertoire—and the Bourne Identity blueprint of Taken—is that it bears an uncanny mood and narrative to just about every Dennis Lehane adaptation ever (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Drop, etc.). It’s not exactly of the quality of any of the aforementioned films, but it’s also not far from it. And yeah, none of those movies star Liam motherfeckin’ Neeson.
Also, Neeson tries to do something he rarely does—pull off an American accent (and a New York one at that). Or at least I think that’s what he’s going for. It’s unclear. Either way, it provides a few good chuckles, and eventually he just gives up and goes back to fucking people up and delivering sinister threats in his signature brogue. Choice quote: “The girl’s gotta be alive and all in one piece for the deal to happen. Are you listening, motherfucker?”
So is this movie anything more than popcorn? No, not really. But if we’re gonna call it popcorn, this ain’t no microwave Orville Redenbacher shit. This is some primo, truffle-butter kernels popped at one of them leather seat theaters with the $10 beers. In other words, A Walk Among the Tombstones is absolutely everything you could ask for out of a dark, violent, kick-ass Neeson thriller. Look for it, find it, and
kill watch it.