Brooding Neeson meets pulp noir
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (NC16)
Crime drama/114 minutes/Opens today
Former New York Police Department cop and recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is an unlicensed private investigator - or as he puts it, he does favours for people and, in return, they give him gifts.
His latest case comes from heroin trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), who wants retribution after two men kidnapped his beloved wife and chopped her into pieces, even though he paid the ransom.
Aided by TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley), a street urchin who aspires to follow in the detective's footsteps, Scudder works to track down the murderers before they strike again.
Set at the turn of the millennium, the film is based on a novel of the same name by crime writer Lawrence Block.
NEESON has been typecast as the angry badass of late, from his comeback role as a former spy in Taken (2008) to voicing a literal two-faced cop in this year's The Lego Movie.
While he has his moments of rage in this outing - like a tense phone negotiation with the kidnappers - the 62-year-old Irishman gets to try something different as Block's private eye - a quiet, more nuanced character study of a remorseful loner seeking redemption.
In fact, Neeson was reportedly the man the writer had always seen as his world-weary protagonist.
Block's sleuth is a rare breed - intelligent and honourable; relying on his gift of the gab and, if necessary, his fists, rather than guns. He cajoles information out of his witnesses instead of roughing them up, and is an old-school luddite, preferring to get his leads from interviews than from the Internet.
The grizzled gumshoe also has a troubled past - a tragic incident years ago forced him to rethink his alcohol dependence and his role in the police force.
Neeson conveys the stolid character's overwhelming grief by furrowing his brow and wearing a perpetual frown, but he does have some wry moments with the detective's research partner and accidental protege, TJ, played by The X Factor finalist Bradley with equal parts spunk and naivety.
In one memorable exchange, Scudder admonishes TJ for stealing a pistol by showing him how to use it, before telling the teenager to shoot himself.
The serial killers - played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson - are genuinely chilling, not only because they are sadists who delight in torturing their victims before dismembering them, but also because they are so nondescript that they blend into society.
It is telling that the scene in which they are introduced is not while they are committing their crimes, but when they are having breakfast in their suburban home.
For all their intrigue, though, they are blank slates, with little explanation on their motivations or backstories.
The supporting cast are competent in their roles - Stevens as Kristo, haunted by regret from not doing enough to save his spouse and burning with the desire to give her murderers a taste of their own medicine; Boyd Holbrook as Kristo's brother, Peter, who hides a dark secret from his sibling; and Olafur Darri Olafsson as James Loogan, a cemetery groundskeeper who becomes an unwitting accomplice to the villains.
Almost the whole cast are guilt-ridden and wrestling with personal demons.
Director Scott Frank - who also wrote the screenplay and previously helmed crime thriller The Lookout (2007) - and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr filmed the underbelly of New York in winter, lending the film a very austere but beautiful look.
Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, writing his first film score, uses the xylophone and piano to imbue Scudder's pavement pounding with danger and mystery.
The shoot-outs and scuffles, while few and far between, are vicious. Gunshots roar like thunder and violence, when it comes, is sudden and unexpected.
The plot, however, is straightforward, and an attempt to juxtapose the climax with the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous comes off as contrived. Also, for all the rich histories and personalities the good guys have, they never really change throughout the course of the movie.
Nevertheless, for fans of pulp noir and those who want to see Neeson in a more thoughtful, less hot-blooded role, this is a walk worth taking.