A Walk Among The Tombstones

By R. David

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (September 19, 2014) – Liam Neeson once again plays a man with a specific set of skills that just so happen to make him the perfect badass to call when a couple of sociopaths start brutally murdering the loved ones of New York-area drug dealers circa 1999.

“A Walk Among the Tombstones” is based on Lawrence Bock’s series of mystery bestsellers featuring ex-cop turned unlicensed private investigator Matt Scudder (Neeson).  The film begins in 1991 with Scudder then on the force and on the sauce.  The events of a bar shoot-out lead him to retire.  Fast-forward eight years, he now “helps people solve problems in exchange for gifts”, as he puts it.  A member of his AA group convinces him to investigate the abduction and murder of his drug-trafficking brother’s wife.  This puts Scudder on the trailer of a pair of kidnappers/homicidal maniacs who may or may not have DEA ties.

“Tombstones” distinguishes itself from the more cartoony action films in Neeson’s cannon as of late with a gritty, neo-noir look and style.  Writer/director Scott Frank is shooting for a lurid, atmospheric, serious thriller here.  He mostly succeeds.  Setting the film in 1999 with subtle reminders of the time (cab-top ads for home-readying Y2K services, shots of the World Trade Centers, all the cell phones flip, phone booths are still readily available) add to the surreal, noirish feel; as do the chilly days and rainy nights.  Neeson, while always stoic, is more pensive and measured here than in his recent, more overtly heroic roles.  Only near the film’s climax does he start doling out the coolly intimidating threats – over the phone no less – that have become his stock in trade.

The problem with “Tombstones”, though, is that for all of its lofty ambition to create a strong sense of time and place, it couldn’t feel more generic from a storytelling perspective.  Structurally, this is a conventional detective story and all of its paces and characters feel shopworn and perfunctory (there’s even a smart-but-underprivileged kid – with sickle cell anemia no less! – who wants to be Scudder’s partner) -which is surprising because Frank is the scribe of crackling, memorable scripts for the film adaptations of “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight”, among others.  Maybe those Elmore Leonard books simply gave him a stronger template than Bock’s novel.

Despite a few ferocious and grisly sequences (most of them involving women) “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is the kind of thriller you’ll confuse with 10 other movies a few years from now.  The performances are good and Frank’s direction is stellar, but he lets himself down with his movie-of-the-week-style script and pacing.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

1201213 - The Equalizer

THE EQUALIZER (September 26, 2014) – Denzel Washington also plays a man with a very specific set of skills in “The Equalizer”, a far more energetic, action-oriented thriller than “A Walk Among the Tombstones”; but it is also much sillier and lacks any high-minded ambition where directing is concerned.  This one is helmed by Antoine Fuqua and stars Washington in a more Liam Neeson-ready role than Neeson’s part in “Tombstones”.  I guess the “taciturn, loner, middle-aged badass” has officially become a cottage industry in Hollywood.  That’s not a complaint; just an observation.  Better Neeson and Washington putting down cinematic scum than Channing Tatum or Scarlett Johansson.

Washington plays McCall, a widowed home improvement store worker living a quiet, solitary existence in a modest apartment.  He doesn’t sleep much, so he goes to the local diner in the middle of the night to drink tea (which he brings from home) and read old novels (he’s gradually making his way through a list of ‘100 novels everyone should read before they die’, a task his wife was determined to accomplish but never completed). It’s at the diner he befriends a teenage Russian escort named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) who, naturally, answers to an abusive pimp who just happens to be a major player in the Russian mafia.  After Teri is severely beaten, McCall pays the pimp a visit and ends up killing him and four of his henchmen with a precision and deadly skill that suggests there just might be more to this guy than a guiet, lonely department store employee.  The pimp’s higher-ups in Russia send a hit squad after McCall which causes him to reveal his true identity as a former CIA assassin.

“The Equalizer” starts out batshit silly and only gets goofier as it goes along.  But it’s hardly asking you to swallow anything more ludicrous than you’ve seen in any number of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or – for that matter- Neeson flicks.  It works in the same way “Taken” or “The Expendables” films do:  In its best moments, “The Equalizer” is a refreshing throwback to the heyday of one-man-army actioners.  But unlike most of those films, there’s a turgid self-importance running through this film, as if it is trying to position itself as being more dramatic and more complex than it really is.  Washington brings his usual gravitas to the role, but that almost seems out of place here.  He’s trying so hard to convey a depth of character and emotion in a film that neither deserves nor calls for it.  We’re supposed to be having fun watching him take guys apart with corkscrews and nail guns, but he doesn’t seem to be having any fun doing it.  You won’t hear many people say they long for the Steven Seagal days of action cinema, but it’s during morose, would-be enjoyable shoot-‘em-ups like this that I do.

You may recall Washington won an Oscar under Fuqua’s direction for “Training Day” back in 2001.  Washington needn’t worry about that happening again here.  But “The Equalizer” is far from worthless where the action and performances are concerned.  Undiscriminating action fans – the same ones who made “Taken” such a huge hit despite its massive implausibility and unoriginality – will likely be elated again here. But the film is simply too familiar and too tone-deaf to warrant a blanket recommendation.  Oh, and if you’re wondering; no, you needn’t be familiar with the 1986 TV series this in-name-only remake is based on.

2 Stars (Out of 4)




By R. David

2010’s “Kick-Ass” was a breath of fresh air.  If you’ll pardon the pun, it was the kick in the ass the superhero genre needed at the time.  Despite the gritty nihilism of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, the comic book flicks of the last decade or so have become increasingly candy-colored and family-friendly.  Not a bad thing necessarily – after all, who if not youngsters should be able to enjoy movies about superheroes – but the fact that most of these films increasingly look and feel so similar smacks more of studios making a calculated decision to feed a cashcow rather than showing concern for pesky little things like artistic expression and originality.  Decidedly not for kids – and based on some truly unsavory source material – “Kick-Ass” seemed determined to be the anti-comic book movie.

The main hook that sets “Kick-Ass” apart from the average superhero comic is that it supposedly asks the question, “What would happen if real people dressed up as superheroes and fought crime, despite lacking any actual superpowers?”  The truth is, however, in the comics and both films, there isn’t much that takes place in anything resembling the real world.  The violence is more extreme and consequential that what you find in the typical superhero flick, and the action is far more low-tech (nobody shoots lightning bolts out of their eyes or has million-dollar gadgets), but otherwise the stunts, outlandish action scenarios and outcomes of the characters’ actions have little in common with real life.

No matter though.  Fresh, peculiar, and entertaining as hell, “Kick-Ass” delivered on its promise to be a provocative deconstruction of genre conventions.  The most interesting, if also the most questionable, aspect of the original comic and the film was making its protagonists teenagers – particularly 11 year-old Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, in a star-making performance).  Perhaps verging on irresponsible, “Kick-Ass” runs these kids through the ringer of life-threatening violence.  As if to counter such claims though, the kids are plenty tough and, at times, reprehensible themselves; often acting nearly as psycho or sociopathic as some of the villains (although, I’m not sure that distinction helps the comics or films feel any less lurid).  After all, what are we to make of Hit Girl’s situation:  A child who swears like a sailor and has grown up being trained by her grieving, widower father, Big Daddy(Nicolas Cage), to kill with extreme prejudice?

Such plot devices might leave a bad taste were it not for how effective Cage and Moretz interacted, both as crime fighters, as well as father and daughter.  They made an extremely entertaining pair, but also displayed a convincing, loving bond.  There was an underlying sadness to their motivations and the film was smart enough to acknowledge the questionable morality of Big Daddy putting his own daughter in harm’s way; using her and the guise that he is protecting the innocent, to alleviate his own pain and guilt over the loss of his wife.  That’s heavy stuff for any film to tackle, nevermind one that is ostensibly a subversive action-comedy.

Fast-forward now nearly 4 years, and Hit Girl – really name Mindy Macready – is a high school sophomore trying to navigate the common struggles and pitfalls of adolescence, while also determined to keep her promise to her father to always protect the innocent, but realizing she can’t do both.  Meanwhile, Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the titular hero, is looking to form a superhero alliance, so he takes up with a motley crew of like-minded do-gooders led by Colonel Stars & Stripes (Jim Carry, doing some nice work), a born-again Vet who, like Big Daddy in the first film and so many of the “heroes” here, is a damaged soul who has taken up crime fighting as means to temper his own sadness and desperation.

At the other end of the superhero spectrum, Chris D’Amico, Kick-Ass’ former partner Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), is determined to reinvent himself as the world’s first real-life supervillain (“The Motherfucker”) and avenge the death of his father by killing Kick-Ass.  Of the many implausibilities of this film and the general “Kick-Ass” universe is the idea that Kick-Ass and Red Mist never had any idea who each other really were.  I guess that’s no more far-fetched than no one realizing that, say, Clark Kent is Superman, but I thought this film was supposed to be turning these sort of genre conventions on their ear.

There’s a lot of tossed-off exposition in “Kick-Ass 2” that amounts to simple laziness on the screen-writers’ parts this time around.  Dave, Chris and Clark (Clark Duke) were formerly all best friends.  When Dave tells Clark that Chris may be resurfacing and poses a threat, Clark says, “Oh, yeah.  Whatever happened to that guy;” as if Chris just disappeared and Clark and Dave are just now realizing it.  Similarly, a lot of character motivations and plot thread outcomes are determined by coincidence or are outright nonsensical this time around, even for a movie that is as intentionally outlandish as this one.

That said, there isn’t too much to truly dislike about “Kick-Ass 2”, if you enjoyed the first one that is.  If you were never on board with this concept, “Kick-Ass 2” won’t win you over.  And like most sequels, it doesn’t feel as energized or inspired as its predecessor.  There are no action sequences on par with the batshit insanity of Hit Girl’s Tarantinoesque bad-guy massacre that was the centerpiece of the original “Kick-Ass”; or that film’s blood-orgy ballet finale (though one sequence involving a lawnmower comes close).  But even though the novelty of the concept has greatly worn off this time around, there are still considerable pleasures to be had in the performances; particularly by Moretz, once again the showstopper in every scene she’s in.  Her attempt to fit in with a “Mean Girls”-like clique is a comedic highlight (“Maybe I’ll jam my foot up your snatch!”).  In fact, the frank, over-the-top comedic dialog is strong once again across the board (Kick-Ass:  “What’s the matter, Chris? Shit hit your shorts?”  Motherfucker:  “Yeah and I’m gonna wipe my ass with your face.”), and on the opposite side of the emotional divide, there is still a palpable sadness to the underlying traumas that dictate many of these characters’ actions.

“Kick-Ass 2” may lack the freshness of its predecessor, but as ribald, action-packed entertainment, it gets the job done.

2 ½ stars out of 4