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)



Cartel 2 Guns

By R. David

Published August 2, 2013

I love movies like “2 Guns”.

And I miss movies like “2 Guns”.

It’s almost hard to imagine now, but for a while there in the 1980s and ‘90s, the buddy-cop/action-comedy was about as popular a film genre as, say, superhero films are today.  With near monthly regularity, every studio was churning out their own potential franchise-starter featuring two mismatched, wise-cracking cops (or some minor variation on that theme) who bicker for whatever reason initially, but end up being the only guys tough enough to take down America’s biggest drug kingpin, dirtiest politician,  most crooked cops, or whatever the case (pun!) may be.

However, as with any successful formula, these actioners were so run into the ground that they all but disappeared well before the turn of the millennium.  For every “48 Hrs.”, “Lethal Weapon”, “Tango & Cash”, “The Last Boy Scout”, or “Bad Boys”; there were dozens of lame imitators (and hundreds more low-budget, straight-to-video knock-offs).  The fact that even one starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi both exists and didn’t kill the trend all by itself shows you just how out of control the buddy-cop craze was.

The difference between the good buddy-cop movies (not that they were all necessarily great movies on a technical level – I’ll concede “Tango & Cash” is pretty dumb – but some, like “Lethal Weapon”, were both kick-ass and had a top tier acting, writing and directing) and the forgettable-to-awful ones essentially boils down to 3 things:

  1. The chemistry between the two leads.
  2. The quality of their comedic ribbing/number of bad-ass one-liners.
  3. Quantity and quality of ammo-drenched action sequences.

The best buddy cop movies also tend to have a memorably nasty villain and some exciting car chases (“Tango & Cash” manages to poses all of these traits, which is why it has become something of a cult classic within the genre despite its many flaws).  How original or plausible any of the details are is really beside the point if the movie can hit all those marks.

And hit them “2 Guns” does.  In fact, while it doesn’t exactly break any new cinematic ground, “2 Guns” so deftly navigates the genre’s requirements for success (it nails the Top 3 and also features not one, but two terrific villains), it rates near the upper echelon of classic buddy-cop flicks.  Some may consider that overly generous praise, but that’s what happens when a terrific genre is run into the ground and then all but abandoned for over a decade.  When it comes blasting back with a movie that embraces its best qualities, action buffs like me start thanking their movie gods.

I mean, I dig the recent revisionist trend of movies paying homage to the ultra-mocho, shoot-‘em-up, he-man flicks of the ‘80s as much as the next action movie buff.  But as much as I enjoy Stallone’s “Expendables” franchise for the loving throwback it is, it’s nice to see a film embrace a bygone era wholeheartedly, not just as an excuse to constantly wink at the audience or simply rely on the stunt-casting of familiar faces as entertainment, in place of actual plot and character development.  “The Expendables” relies on nostalgia, “2 Guns” aspires to be a legitimate entry in the genre it so obviously adores.

The movie stars Denzel Washington as Bobby Trench (AKA “Bobby T.”, AKA “Bobby I-Know-A-Guy”) and Mark Wahlberg as Michael “Stig” Stigman (Rule 4:  It’s not a great buddy cop movie if the leads don’t have names that can function as cool monikers; also see:  Riggs & Murtaugh, Tango & Cash, etc.) as – ostensibly – a couple of bantering bank robbers who think they’ve just found the perfect score.  Too bad that all the bank’s dough belongs to a ruthless Mexican drug lord (Edward James Olmos, in a bit of perfect casting) who – naturally – wants it back.  To make matters worse for Trench and Stig, a crazed-CIA head honcho (Bill Paxton) is also on their trail; and as coincidences and double crosses start piling up the duo is not sure who they can trust.

I’m not doing “2 Gun’s” story any favors with that plot synopsis, I know.  But I’m being purposely vague.  The plot has so many twists and would-be surprises it’s almost infuriating that so much is given away in the trailers.  Anyone who has seen them will already know a few of the film’s surprises going in, and that’s a damn shame.  This is one of those movies where the less you know about it before hand, the more you’ll enjoy it.  So on the off chance you are reading this and managed to avoid that spoiler of a trailer the studio put out there, I’ll say no more.

Don’t misunderstand me.  This isn’t “The Sixth Sense” or “The Crying Game”.  There are no brilliant, movie-altering gotcha! reveals; not that those are the sort of “twists” “2 Guns” is even striving for.  The film simply wants to keep the audience on its toes – interested and entertained rather than simply running through the buddy-cop play book and calling it a day.  People are not who they say they are, scenes and characters that are staples of the genre get new, interesting little tics.  Again, it’s all done with great affection for both the genre and its intended audience (for instance, I thought it was refreshing that “2 Guns” never makes the distinction between the two partners’ race, ala “48 Hrs.”, or their ages as in “Lethal Weapon”).

Denzel Washington is typically Denzel-Cool as Trench.  He applies his ability to be steely and intimidating in one scene, and then charming and disarmingly humorous in others to great effect.  But it’s Mark Wahlberg who gets the best lines.  Stig is a cross between the foul-mouthed police lieutenant he played in “The Departed” and the good-natured, if slightly daft character he so effortlessly slips into in movies like “Ted” and “The Big Hit”.  An early scene where he gets mouthy with a bunch of cartel thugs is a highlight.  I could watch it over and over.

But it’s Bill Paxton who steals every scene he’s in.  Seemingly having walked in from a completely different movie (as is often the case with Bill Paxton), his psycho CIA cowboy Earl is one of the most entertaining action movie villains in a long time.  Obviously relishing playing this deliciously unhinged character, Paxton is pitch-perfect.

Ditto the movie.  I loved it.

“2 Guns”, while perfect for what it is, would admittedly probably score about a B if you take into account all of the other technical things you must when judging a film overall.  I don’t think that’s particularly necessary here as it gets everything it has to right and rates an A for what it is.  So I’ll split the difference and give “2 Guns”:

3.5 stars out of 4.