By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — With the title of the nifty, popular piece that launched Liam Neeson’s emergence as an action star already Taken, there’s only one truly apt title for this sorry mess of a thriller:  Mistaken.

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What else would you call a deeply unpleasant suspense chiller this exploitative, hypocritical, misogynistic, and detestable?

Well, for the record, it’s called A Walk Among the Tombstones.

And it’s about as nauseatingly off-putting as otherwise competently produced movies get.

 

(1 star out of 4)

(1 star out of 4)

 

But it starts, it would seem, with an influential scene from 2009’s Taken.

That would be the image of Liam Neeson talking tough to kidnappers on the phone and would suggest yet another vigorous action flick for the Oscar nominee.

But A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t measure up to Taken and differs from it in many ways.

For openers, Neeson’s character has no personal investment in the case he takes on.  He’s talked into it.  Which makes A Walk Among the Tombstones somewhat of a police procedural.

Somewhat.

Based on the 1992 Lawrence Block novel of the same name, it’s a dark and dour abduction thriller and murder mystery, set in the graffiti-riddled Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City in 1999, with the Y2K bug scare very much in the air.

Neeson plays an unlicensed private eye, an ex-NYPD cop and recovering alcoholic named Matthew Scudder.  He’s an old-school investigator who eschews cell phones and computers and has a fierce determination but a wry sense of humor.

A tortured and reluctant Scudder is hired by a mid-level heroin trafficker played by Dan Stevens (best known for exiting television’s “Downton Abbey”), who wants him to track down the lowlifes responsible for kidnapping and horrifically murdering his wife despite the fact that he immediately paid the ransom.

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The modus operandi of this pair of pure psychopaths, played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson, is to pose as DEA agents and target the wives and daughters of criminals (drug dealers, to be specific) who are then unable or unwilling to go to the police.

And, as is often the wont among serial killers, then to renege on the eventual ransom agreement anyway.

Brian “Astro” Bradley plays Scudder’s “associate,” a homeless adolescent sidekick who insinuates his way into Scudder’s procedure and life.

Director Scott Frank — who debuted as a director in 2007 with The Lookout, which he also scripted, after writing the screenplays for such films as Dead Again, Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report, and The Wolverine –- references such iconic private detectives as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, as if a modernizing of the gumshoe tradition is what’s being attempted here.

That pretense is laughable, given the level of stomach-turning tastelessness on display, and apologies to authors Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler should be in order.

Frank’s slavish interest in the detailed procedure and vicious behavior of the killers, sometimes even shooting from their point of view, gives the film a mile-wide sadistic streak that is at best suspicious and at worst certifiable.

We keep wondering why we’re spending any time at all observing these two twisted characters and the film never comes close to providing an answer.  If this is just narrative filler, something is very much out of whack.

Scudder is the protagonist in ten hard-boiled Lawrence Block books (a thought to make one shudder:  can you spell f-r-a-n-c-h-i-s-e?) so that, given Neeson’s recent popularity as a reinvented action tough guy, we could well see him again as the new non-kid on the Block.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is excessively gruesome, to say the least, but without ever approaching a level of artistic integrity that justifies such an approach.

All this pulpy period potboiler does is make you feel you need a shower.

So we’ll abduct 1 star out of 4.  After two hours spent in the company of the repugnant A Walk Among the Tombstones, the title starts to sound like a stroll in the park.

 

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