Liam Neeson has become visual shorthand. You cast Neeson in a movie and you’re hanging out a very specific shingle. This is a film about a good, troubled man who has problems with technology and who will calmly and methodically beat to death anyone who stands between him and his family.
Or his prey.
Or often both.
Either way, there’s going to be punching. Large, angry, Irish punching.
It’s a compelling image and its given rise to some of the most entertaining action movies since the turn of the century.
It’s also not strictly true. A Walk Among The Tombstones proves why.
Adapted from the Lawrence Bloch novel, it casts Neeson as Matthew Scudder, a former NYPD officer turned unlicensed private eye. Superficially, and certainly as presented in the trailers, Scudder is every inch the standard Neesonian archetype. He’s got blood on his hands and has entered the same near monastic level of engagement with the world as Bryan Mills or John Ottway.
But the similarities are only skin deep. Firstly, Scudder’s a man at peace with his demons. Mills, like the new version of The Equalizer, has shut himself off from his unique set of skills. Ottway has fled to Alaska to either embrace his grief or escape it. Scudder, by contrast, lives in the same city and does the same work. He has blood on his hands but he knows the only thing that will wash it off is time.
That’s an important distinction, both from Mills and Ottway and from the action heroes that came before them. A lot, most of it very good, has been written about the vast spectrum of aging action movies that we’re currently in the middle of. To my mind Neeson, and Denzel Washington, are doing some of the most interesting work in the field and that emotional distinction between Scudder and Neeson’s past roles proves why. His take on Scudder is equal parts relaxed and resigned, a man comfortable with his life and himself. It’s a world away from the cops on the edge and motormouth smartasses of the ‘80s and ‘90s and just as far away from Neeson’s previous roles in the field. Matt Scudder isn’t a man seeking redemption, he’s a man doing penance.
The method of that penance is the other major difference. He’s a recovering alcoholic and the emphasis is on the first word rather than the second. We see him tell the same story, and the same joke, about the day he stopped drinking several times. The first time it feels natural and sincere. The second time we can tell it’s rehearsed. The final time, he tells the truth; that he quit the NYPD, and alcohol, after a young girl was killed in the crossfire of his ‘heroic’ moment. Even then it’s implied, heavily, that there’s more to his decision. The movie opens not only with a flashback to this incident but the loaded conversation Scudder has with his partner just before it happens. Later there are several jokes about him being a corrupt police officer and he denies none of them. The man in the flashback is completely different to the Scudder we see in the present day. He’s cocky and belligerent, a flamboyant drunk. A cop on the edge. The entire movie, and Scudder’s entire personality, is built on what happens when he’s thrown over that edge.
That brings us to the final major shift. Scudder spends the entire movie getting as far away from physical combat as possible. He’s capable of, and good at, it but he’s an intellectual; a looking glass where Mills or Ottway are a blade. He’s also, and again this is never said out loud, clearly repulsed by guns following the incident that opens the movie.
In a lesser movie, that repulsion and the inevitable return to arms, would play as trite. Here, because Neeson’s Scudder is such a reticent, quiet lead it’s done with a surprising amount of emotional weight. The climactic fights are horrific, confusing, untidy affairs that Scudder is one of the very few survivors of. The trajectory of each is the same as the trajectory of the shot that changed his life; completely unpredictable. As the movie closes we understand not only why he’s so reluctant to use violence but also just how lucky he is.
The final reel is also where the film plays its most interesting, card. There’s a running dialogue through the film between Scudder and Kenny Kristo, wife of one of the murder victims and high end drug dealer. Played with tight, controlled grief by Dan Stevenson, Kenny’s a clenched ball of rage, grief and guilt. At the end of the movie, he’s given a choice between vengeance and the law. He chooses vengeance, and you sit forward, expecting that to be the moment where Scudder finds a mean street to walk off down. Instead, he leaves, stops, and then goes back to reason with Kenny.
We’re told why by the monologue, reciting the 12 steps of AA recovery, that punctuates and comments on the final act. Sometimes it’s a stark contrast to what’s happening but more often it’s a window into Scudder’s head. He’s a man whose recovery has been built on care and diligence. He can’t leave someone else in a worse position than he was in when he started recovery. It’s trained compassion but its still compassion and, as important, shows just how different he is from Neeson’s other roles. Mills, Ottway and Sky Marshal Bill Marks in particular are all men looking for their defining moment. Scudder’s found his and the peace that comes on the other side of it. His struggle isn’t to get there, but to stay there. He’s walking the mean streets not because he must, but because he’s at peace.
A Walk Among The Tombstones is in my local cinema at least right now and I keep thinking about seeing it again. You should too. And buy the book, also available now.