For a good, straight-ahead noirish crime thriller, you could do a lot worse than A Walk Among the Tombstones. Liam Neeson gives a nice, melancholy turn to his role as Matthew Scudder, the private eye at the center of a long-running series of novels by Lawrence Block.
The opening is a set piece that handily sketches the character's background. It's the early '90s (the novel was published in '92), and Scudder is an alcoholic cop in New York's less flashy precincts. One day he guns down a couple of bad guys, but there's horrendous collateral damage. He quits drinking and leaves the NYPD, and, though he has no license, begins taking on occasional detective work.
Flash forward to 1999, with Y2K fears in the air. Scudder takes on investigative jobs between AA meetings, and he disdains modern tools like cellphones, preferring traditional methods: lots of footwork, waiting and watching, etc. Because of his earlier trauma, he is anything but quick to use a gun.
Soon he's pulled into a nightmarish case. The wife of an affluent drug dealer (Dan Stevens) has been kidnapped and gruesomely murdered, even though the husband paid the ransom. The perps are a pair of psychopaths who may or may not have some connection to the DEA, but are sure to strike again. These two loonies (one is played with nasty relish by David Harbour) are straight out of a torture-porn movie, which becomes clear in some brief but highly distressing scenes of sadism.
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That's the film's nod to the modern way, but writer-director Scott Frank mainly has his eye on tradition — Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade are mentioned several times, in case we miss the point. Scudder has some of that knight-in-shining-armor glow, and it's hard not to like him: He has scruples and, for all his troubles, a quiet sense of humor.
It's a testament to Frank's talent that he sidesteps what could have been a major mistake. Scudder is aided in his work by a precocious, homeless black teenager (Brian "Astro" Bradley) he meets at the library. The film could get all warm and fuzzy about this, but doesn't, as the young man proves a capable sidekick.
Frank is also good at establishing the downbeat milieu: There's rain and garbage and graffiti on these mean streets. He makes fine use of the locations -- several Brooklyn sites are shown or mentioned, and the climactic scene takes place at that borough's majestic Green-Wood Cemetery.
On the other hand, the film does seem a bit long — there's a reason many classic noirs were cut to the bone.
Neeson has so much audience good will at this point that he (almost) can do no wrong. He's very good as Scudder, and with luck (and good box office), this could be the start of a series.