Review – Liam Neeson Has a Certain Set of Skills… (“A Walk Among The Tombstones”)

Adapted from Lawrence Block’s 18 novels of an ex-cop turned private eye named Matthew Scudder, this first-time movie version is tailor made for Liam Neeson and his world-weary appearance and long-suffering recovering alcoholic look.
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We first meet Scudder in 1991 NYC as a drunk detective who guns down some bad guys in a holdup gone wrong. But a miscalculation on his behalf goes bad and he gives up the booze and the badge to become an unlicensed private investigator.
Fast-forward to a chilly 1999 NYC and a sober Scudder meets a fellow recovering addict whose drug trafficking brother, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) wants to hire him. It seems that Kenny’s wife was kidnapped, a ransom paid, but then the kidnappers killed her anyway and now Kenny just wants revenge. At first Matthew balks at the gig and the hefty $40K salary, but then (and quite coincidentally) he meets a runaway homeless black kid named T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley–“Astro” is his rapper name–sheesh!) in a library. T.J., aside from having computer skills, is intelligent and aspires to be a gumshoe in the vein of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

Together they realize that the “kidnap, pay, and then kill the hostage” ploy has been done before by the same two guys, but only to wealthy drug traffickers. . . which makes sense since they would never go to the cops for help. Matthew takes the case and starts to follow clues and finds James (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson–really good), a creepy and mentally-off cemetery worker who keeps pigeons and provides some vital info. More clues and more leads provide Matthew with proof that the bad guys are ex-DEA cops (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) and real twisted sickos as well!

Meanwhile, the creeps kidnap a Russian drug trafficker’s teenage daughter and Matthew steps in for the hostage negotiations; something the bad guys didn’t expect. The ransom exchange for the girl goes down in the cemetery and just when you think all is well and the exchange goes smoothly, someone does something stupid. The ending, which I won’t give away, is both tense and happens with nail-biting excitement.

Written for the screen and directed with a keen eye by Scott Frank, you can practically feel the coldness of the dark, bleak city with all its muted colors and wintery shadows, thanks to cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr.

Neeson (and his particular set of skills) was born for this role (although Harrison Ford was the first choice) and thankfully he doesn’t fall back on his Taken character, although you can’t help but see a little of it when he’s giving out the ransom instructions to the kidnappers over the phone.

Rapper-turned-actor Bradley is also very good here and proves he can act, even after being in that recent silly kids film, Earth To Echo. There’s a feeling of old school film noir, given the fact that 40’s detectives are mentioned in the movie and the pace is slow and solid, not that that is a bad thing. Yes, it could has used a few tweaks here and there for pacing in this almost two hour movie, but overall, I enjoyed the performances throughout.
   
CHINATOWN (1974)

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This is a great film that hinted at film noir in the mid 70’s and made by acclaimed film director Roman Polanski. A gritty and seedy detective piece that gave Jack Nicholson his Best Actor Golden Globe Award, this movie is a jigsaw puzzle of intrigue, greed, lust, water rights, an assault on the nostrils, and incest most foul.
 
It’s 1937 Los Angeles and Nicholson is J. J. “Jake” Gittes, a former cop turned private eye who gets paid by the wife of Hollis I. Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the chief engineer for the L.A. Water and Power Dept, to spy on him. Gittes tails him and shoots pics of him with a young woman, which are then published on the front page of the following day’s paper. BUT! He later finds out it he was set up! That woman that paid him wasn’t his wife and the REAL wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), slaps Jake with a lawsuit. AND the guy he was tailing turns up dead the next day! This is turning out to be a helluva week!
 
Jake is naturally pissed. Who set him up and why? His investigation leads to checking out the L.A. river basin where Mulwray was recently found dead, but all he finds is a thug (director Polanski) that warns him to back off with a switchblade knife through his nose! Ouch! Then Mrs. Mulwray drops her lawsuit out of the blue. WTF? More investigation by Jake yields conspiracies and power plays with land and water rights that are into the millions of dollars. . . and they all point to Mrs. Mulwray’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), a wealthy, smug bastard that seems to have a strange hold over his daughter.
 
What Jake finds out in the end, as he slowly starts to fall for Evelyn, is the secret teenager she’s got hidden away in an undisclosed house. Who is she? That’s the famous and most quoted line from the movie as Jake repeatedly slaps Evelyn’s face to get the correct answer from her.
 
Polanski almost didn’t direct this film due to his horrible memories of L.A. (his wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson gang in 1969), but he loved Robert Towne’s script so much, that he did it anyway. Speaking of Towne, this movie garnished him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. The ending, by the way, was originally written with a happy, upbeat ending, but Polanski changed it to the bleak, tragic one we all saw at the theaters. The sequel, The Two Jakes, unfortunately bombed at the box office.   
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