When we first meet Scudder (Liam Neeson) it’s 1991. Back then he was NYPD, with dyed moustache and goatee. He drinks a breakfast of coffee and two shots of whiskey in a bar that gets robbed. The robbers ice the barkeep. Scudder chases them down and disposes of them one at a time with a remarkably steady hand. There’s more to this part of the story but we don’t learn about it until later, when it’s 1999, Scudder’s handed in his badge, started up as an un-licenced private detective, given up booze and shaved off the ’stache and goatee, that combo having migrated to the faces of several heavies, among them millionaire criminal Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) and sadistic sociopathic serial killer Albert (Adam David Thompson). The 90s were difficult years for facial hair legitimacy.
Yet, if A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything to go by, they were good years for literacy rates. This film, based on a 1992 novel by Lawrence Block, features a drug lord who chills on the sofa with some Nabokov, a homeless boy who hangs out in libraries and is well versed in his Dashiell Hammett, a cemetery groundskeeper toiling away at a novel, and another drug lord who names his dog Watson, no doubt in honour of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved narrator. I’m poking fun, but the truth is that it’s a perfectly pleasant conceit in a perfectly watchable, if gruesome, detective yarn, whose narrative style, for the record, is modelled most closely after Raymond Chandler: like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Scudder is usually one step ahead of us and rarely stops to explain what he’s doing. Like Marlowe, Scudder is also something of a romantic. Though evidence of the internet’s usefulness in detection is made obvious to him, Scudder, perhaps buying into the Y2K hype creeping into every third scene, is a devout technophobe, preferring old school methods. Besides, early on in Tombstones Scudder befriends and quasi-deputizes TJ (Astro), the aforementioned homeless child bookworm who knows his way around a search engine and helps save the day, not to mention his own skin, by dint of his early adoption of the mobile phone.
The plot is about as complicated as gruesome detective yarn plots tend to be, but, in short, it involves a series of kidnappings of the loved ones of affluent criminal kingpins who, for the usual reasons, don’t want to go to the cops—so they go to Scudder, who doggedly tracks down the culprits between AA meetings, which come to assume a curiously ominous tone during the film’s protracted climax, which employs a liturgical reading of the 12 steps as a sort of underscoring for much bloodletting and comeuppance. This is veteran screenwriter Scott Frank’s second feature as director and he plays it fairly straight, though you get the impression he wishes the setting was 1979 instead of 1999, or that he was actually making the film in 1974 instead of 2014. Shades of William Friedkin loom. There are worse shadows you could huddle under for two hours.