There's a contest going on this month to see which action star can play the toughest loner in the bloodiest movie. Judging won't be final until we see Denzel Washington in next weekend's "The Equalizer," but right now the front-runner is Liam Neeson in "A Walk Among the Tombstones."
Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, one of the darker inventions of Lawrence Block, a genre-fiction machine with more than 80 novels under various pen names. A former NYPD detective, Scudder has blood on his hands, a guilty conscience and an 8-year sobriety chip. These days -- the 1990s, before 9/11 or even Y2K -- Scudder works as an unlicensed private investigator who does "favors for friends." He defines friends loosely: His latest customer is Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, "Downton Abbey"), a heroin trafficker looking for the men who murdered his wife.
Scudder seems a perfect role for Neeson, whose large frame (6-foot-4) and mature vintage (he's 62) have made him a formidable action star in movies like "Taken." As Scudder, he cuts a romantic figure, covering the streets of Brooklyn in a coat with upturned collar, stopping only to put the screws to some hapless weasel. Initially, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" feels like an old-fashioned noir about a dogged gumshoe working a grimy city.
Instead, writer-director Scott Frank delves into torture and titillation, mostly at the expense of women. The movie's villains are two all-purpose psychos (David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) whose handiwork takes place largely off-screen, but the suggestions are revolting enough. As the movie becomes increasingly bloody and nihilistic, the troubling qualities of our nominal heroes -- a former cop paid by a midlevel drug-dealer -- become harder to ignore. Even Scudder's ostensibly comedic sidekick, a homeless teen named TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley), comes off as depressing.
What's more, the movie lacks action: Before the grisly finale arrives, Scudder throws exactly one punch. "A Walk Among the Tombstones" feels like one of its villains: spiteful, sadistic and amoral.
PLOT A former cop reluctantly gets involved in a kidnapping case.
CAST Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
BOTTOM LINE A dark, lugubrious movie full of grisly fates and few thrills. Fans of Neeson's "Taken" movies will be disappointed.