LOS ANGELES – It's not for nothing that the names of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are reverentially referenced in writer-director Scott Frank's adaptation of the 10th novel in Lawrence Block's long-running, best-selling series featuring unlicensed private eye Matthew Scudder. Distinctly and proudly old-fashioned in its retro, film noir vibe, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is notable for its dark atmospherics and strong performance by Liam Neeson in the latest example of his unlikely late career transformation into an action hero.
Scudder is a terrific character, whose casting choice its creator heartily approved, expertly embodies with his usual physically commanding presence and world-weary gravitas. The film's tense 1991-set opening scene efficiently provides the character's backstory as an alcoholic NYC cop who gave up the booze and the badge when his shootout with some bad guys on the streets of New York City went tragically awry. Cut to 1999, when he's working as unlicensed private investigator who explains that "I do favors for people. in return they give me gifts."
Enlisted by fellow AA meeting attendee and drug addict Peter (Boyd Holbrook), Scudder reluctantly takes a case involving Peter's prosperous drug-dealing brother Kenny (Dan Stevens, in a sharp departure from his heartthrob role in "Downton Abbey"), whose wife was kidnapped and returned dead despite his having paid a $400,000 ransom. Kenny demands that Scudder find the culprits and bring them to him for retribution that clearly doesn't involve the legal system.
After the discovery of another female victim, this time left in pieces in trash bags in a park in Brooklyn's historic Greenwood Cemetery, the trail eventually leads to a pair of serial killers (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) who target criminals so as to avoid their getting the authorities involved. After discovering their identity from the cemetery's groundskeeper (a very creepy Olafur Darri Olafsson), Scudder pursues the sociopathic duo with the unlikely help of TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley), a homeless black teenager who aspires to being a gumshoe himself.
Things come to a head after the kidnapping of the young daughter of a Russian drug dealer (Sebastian Roche), with Scudder getting directly involved in the ensuing negotiations. The film's final act, featuring violent set pieces in a basement and the spooky nighttime environs of the cemetery, ratchets up the action considerably.
At one point Scudder explains to his young apprentice that the main attribute a private eye must possess is a "strong bladder." Viewers may need one as well to get through the film's dull middle section, filled with long, talky patches in which nothing much really happens. The compensation is that Neeson's emotionally reticent hero is consistently engaging and refreshingly vulnerable, preferring to talk his way out of tense situations.
Director Frank clearly has an affinity for the material, investing the proceedings with a darkly compelling atmosphere that recalls the best noirs of the 1940s and 1950s. The film benefits greatly from having been shot in various seedy NYC neighborhoods — not to mention the spooky gothic cemetery that inspires the title — with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. ("The Master") delivering a desaturated color palette accentuating the overall gloominess.
At times the convoluted plotting proves too baroque for its own good, and the subplot involving Scudder's mentoring of the sassy teen, who we eventually learn suffers from sickle-cell anemia, is both silly and distracting. The climactic shootout is marred by a too-fussy staging employing freeze frames and a juxtaposition of the tenants of the 12-Step program.
"A Walk Among the Tombstones," a Universal release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity." Running time: 113 minutes.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.