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)
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)