This is the fifth in the Anti-Monitor series, where it’s believed that some films are best reviewed with the utmost incredulity. This week, Matt Fleming and myself banter back and forth over screenwriter Scott Frank’s directorial debut, A Walk Among The Tombstones. We carry on about Liam Neeson punching things, pensively talking to killers on the phone, and dealing with homeless children sass. As always, be wary of spoilers throughout, and please enjoy.
DR: How did that feel longer than two hours? It wasn’t even two hours long, was it?
Matt: It felt longer than two hours. This movie really takes its time, so to speak.
DR: It’s telling in the title. The movie ain’t called A Run Through The Tombstones. Or even, A Brisk Stroll Through The Tombstones.
Matt: A Walk Among the Tombstones, Being Followed by a Homeless Kid.
DR: A Walk Among The Tombstones, Being Followed By A Homeless Kid: That Accent Tho.
Matt:His accent is laughable. We got thirty years of Arnold Schwarzenegger passing for an American, can’t we just suspend disbelief for Liam Neeson? It’s distracting with every turn of already-clunky dialogue. The scenes between him and the kid made my ears hurt.
DR: You mean the street smart kid with a heart of gold with the sympathetic cough and Second Act illness? That kid? Because fuck that kid.
Matt: I though Matt Scudder was going to molest him with a gun, in one awkward (heartwarming?) scene. You know how much I hate bad child actors, but this kid was like 15, I mean he’s almost as tall as Liam Neeson! The scenes shared by these two are clearly meant to be charming, but there is negative chemistry there. The kid is useless, until he has to go get Scudder’s coat. Otherwise, he’s just in the way of getting crimes solved.
DR: The movie does spend an awful lot of time with its subplots, subplots that never materialize into anything worthwhile. It’s like I was saying on the way home, there are good movies and good movie adaptations. One can’t be the other for a very specific reason: a movie adaptation began as something else. Because this is an adaptation of some half-baked, 10-cent potboiler, the movie borrows as much as it can from the novel. The filmmaker, Frank Scott, seemed to run out of movie quite a bit when he wrote this thing, so he kept plucking incidental shit from the book. Or is his name Scott Frank?
Matt: I did some research on the novel series and character. Turns out this movie left out a major series character in favor of introducing TJ, the kid, taken from an earlier book. I guess we missed out on even more subplots and confusion, in order to keep this movie from being even more bloated. I think the movie must be focusing more on the mystery-solving adventure and skimping out on real character development.
DR: But it couldn’t even do that competently, could it?
Matt: Nope. There is no mystery, just “wait until these creeps do this again and we’ll hatch a super-cool plan, right guys? Just follow my lead while I swear at a sadistic serial killer on the phone!”
DR: This was no Taken, but man… Liam Neeson got took.
Matt: And it took a really long time. Wait, I can do better. I sure was Taken off guard by how boring this movie was. It was like Non-Stop waiting for the action. Boy those tombstones sure were The Grey.
DR: Oh, good lord.
Matt: The part when the sicko murderers saw the Russian drug dealer’s daughter sure got Dark, man.
DR: That was Dono-van.
Matt: These creeps were a real Phantom Menace.
(You can’t see it, but we’re laughing our asses off. – DR.)
DR: Crickets, man. Tumbleweeds. I guess it’s important to point out that this director fella, Scott Frank, has written – or at least – co-written some very decent movies.
Matt: Movies that you and I enjoy, and or love.
DR: Minority Report. The Wolverine. Out Of Sight. Marley & Me. Or was that just you?
Matt: You know I can’t watch movies where the dog dies, man.
DR: Apparently we can both sit through barely two hours of rape imagery, though. What’s creepy is that the opening title-card sequence reminded me of the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s The Counselor: sunlit white surfaces, soft skin, caresses… it made me severely uncomfortable when the sequence continued, and we began to see evidence that this was not what it appeared to be, rather it’s something far more sinister. All The Counselor had to close its sequence out was shitty dialogue. This movie made me want to find religion before it even began.
Matt: Quick point about that title-card sequence: was it just me, or did it seem a little… uncooked? This film gave me a lot of first-film/film-school vibes, and it started with this sequence. Very Final Cut Pro-looking fonts and text appearance. It was like a homemade Dexter slashfic opening.
DR: Yeah. The “written for the screen and directed by” overlay looked especially art school audio/visual. Danny DeVito gave this guy 23 million dollars, and most of it went to Liam Neeson. And rain. Frank Scott spent a lot of it on rain. Did you see that scene where that drug dealer guy is getting the go-around on payphones by the killers, and it’s “raining” and far off in the distance are some people just standing around talking. No umbrellas, no newspapers over the head, nothing. Spending money on some rain.
Matt: The money they had leftover from the rain budget went to recreating awareness of the Y2K Scare, which I thought would matter at some point, but just stopped. This novel was published in 1992, which means that mister “Two First Names” writer/director inserted that bit on his own.
DR: Naw, it paid off! Remember the basement showdown when Liam Neesoms threw the goatee into a desktop, that IBM-looking piece of shit, and it goes crash all over the floor? That was Neesoms giving Y2K the finger.
Matt: It was just missing a line like, “Here’s your society’s technological crisis.” Clunky enough?
Matt: Scudder’s mistrusts of cell phones and internets are really the only point of having TJ around. “Hey kid, look up the newspaper on that thing for me and I’ll buy you some pancakes.”
DR: And a new pair of boots, and twenty bucks, and a couch to crash on. This kid made out like a bandit. What I’m grateful for though is that Lisa Frank didn’t bother injecting a love interest in the flick for Liam Neeson, like a sassy waitress or something like that. There is that one waitress for like a second, and my anus puckered up something awful, like “here we go…” but she just went away. So grateful for that. Otherwise, there would have been two people in the back of the rape van in the middle of the Third Act to save. And nobody has time for that.
Matt: That was the character left out from the novel, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold. I wonder if anyone aside from Scott Scott read the source material? Did the marketing department know that this was a detective story and not a “Liam Neeson Punches Crime” movie?
DR: What made it even worse is that the kid kept name-dropping Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe like it was somehow going to further drive the point home that this was some kind of post-neo-pulp noir. Since they were retreading ancient pulp tropes anyhow, I kinda wish they had taken some serious artistic license with the picture and just provide Liam Neeson with a yellow trenchcoat and radio watch and just get the goddamned thing over with already.
Matt: This movie made me want to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a detective film that employed subtlety.
DR: Isn’t that funny, though? All the archetypes are there, and it even borrows some from True Detective to appease the post-nihilists out there: the killers never claim any motives, their associates infer an almost supernatural quality about them, and their slaughter is meted out in a spooky, pragmatic manner. But it still stumbles all over the place. It can’t even make Liam Neeson sound cool on the phone, and if you can’t pull that off, then we’re all really fucked.
Matt: So many visual motifs are borrowed from neo-cable dramas: the formal shifts between straight narrative and flashback, the angles, the shot selection, the freeze frame. I’m sure this movie got rushed through to production after the success of the Harrelson/McConaughey “buddy cop” show. Unfortunately, the viewing public does not simply want drawn out detective stories with familiar faces. And we both know that first season of True Detective was a fluke, anyway.
DR: What this movie needed was another writer. Someone to anchor Tom Scott’s all-over-the-place screenplay. It takes too hungrily from the novel on which it’s based when it should take the opportunity to innovate its private eye motifs. This one hurt just a bit too much. I’m surprised it made it to theaters.
Matt: I’m not surprised. Even the threat of Liam Neeson assaulting crime is enough to draw dads and grads alike. I agree about the writing, but I think we can both see that Frank was trying to go for broke with this. Admit it, we were both worried this might be good. I would love to see a good Liam Neeson detective story, but this was too hokey, terribly executed, and just boring. The villains were creepy and gross and the best part of a bad movie.
DR: And that’s precisely what this is: a bad movie. Anyone seeking redeeming value here needn’t apply.
ANTI-MONITOR – MATT: With A Walk Among the Tombstones, the cracks around Liam Neeson’s second act begin to show. His recent career resurgence as “Action Dad” and “Wolf Puncher” have spiraled into “Boring Mystery Stumble-Upon-er.” In this case, it isn’t entirely the Irish icon’s fault. This movie suffers from the filmmaker’s apparent difficulty with familiar material. The hodgepodge of elements from multiple books in a series, the boring tropes utilized to make up backstory and character development; these are just building blocks for this poorly executed detective story.
Writer/director Scott Frank is familiar with the genre, having previously adapted two Elmore Leonard novels to various degrees of success. This seems like a pet project, where he finally decided to show his chops behind the camera, and he has failed. Add lackluster performances from a script that draws dialogue from a novel, poorly, and all that remains are “edgy” camera angles and visual devices that would get one laughed out of graduate-level film school. I see the intentions, and with some rewrites, some guidance, and some real coffee for the sleepy Neeson, I can see this being better. The buzzwords “detective” and “Liam Neeson” do not a fall blockbuster make. I guess I need to give in and watch the Takens.
ANTI-MONITOR – JARROD: Too humorless to enjoy and too ridiculous to take seriously, A Walk Among The Tombstones is feeble storytelling in a genre rife with feeble storytelling. The archetypes are all in place – the gruff private dick, the street-smart kid, the smirking killer – but Scott Frank’s directorial debut attempts to be too many detective stories all at once, without once succeeding in understanding what makes a solid mystery. Neeson is visibly tired in most sequences, to the point that most of the dramatic weight is either placed upon a child actor far from up to the task, or omitted entirely.
That the film skimps on the details when it shouldn’t and focuses on the minutiae when it doesn’t have to shows how much writer/director Scott Frank truly relies upon other more talented individuals around him to carry out his tasks. Without them, Scott is lost in author Lawrence Block’s insipid dime-store paperback. And that is hardly screen-worthy.
CONSENSUS: A Walk Among The Tombstones is a flavorless, humorless entry in Liam Neeson’s late-career catalog, with predictable plot-twists and useless sub-plots that will try the patience of even the most ardent mystery fan.