Liam Neeson has had a very odd career. The Irish actor (born and raised in North Ireland and named after the local Catholic priest, which is pretty much peak Irishness) began his career in theater. After being cast in a small part in John Boorman’s Arthurian phantasmagoria Excalibur, he would go on to veer between prestige projects and popcorn fare for years. For every Schindler’s List, there was a Darkman. If he was going to star in a period piece Rob Roy, he was also going to pop up as Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. Basically, it has never been easy to pin down the actor, whose innate gravitas and dignity contrast oddly with a hulking physical presence that is so distinctive that Michael Bay had animators model Optimus Prime after him. In the early 2000s, Neeson’s career took a sharp turn to gritty, stripped-down action movies begun (and epitomized) by Luc Besson’s kidnapping-panic film Taken. Since then, Liam Neeson has cemented his image as a brutally efficient killing machine in a series of similar movies. And while 2014’s A Walk Among the Tombstones was certainly marketed that way, it is actually a more complex and nuanced film than expected. It just arrived on Netflix USA this March.
While Liam Neeson’s shift into action star mode was sadly prompted by the tragic death of his wife actor Natasha Richardson. After her passing at the age of 45 in a skiing accident, Neeson has said he was compelled to work as much as possible to avoid falling into despair. This explains the wealth of movies like Unknown, The Commuter, and Run All Night in his filmography; not to paint with a broad brush, but many of his post-Taken action roles are largely undistinguished thrillers whose primary draw is seeing Neeson shoot interchangeable bad guys. A Walk Among the Tombstones is not one of those movies. Based on a 1992 novel by Lawrence Block, the movie fits far more into the tradition of film noir than it does the kind of Eurocentric, frantic filmmaking you might think. It is actually one of a long series of Block’s books featuring his character Matthew Scudder, an ex-cop turned unlicensed private eye. The character was previously played by Jeff Bridges in the forgotten 1986 film 8 Million Ways to Die, but frankly, the role of a tortured, moody man with the capability for great violence suits Liam Neeson a lot better than the legendarily chill Bridges.
A Walk Among the Tombstones begins in the time-honored tradition of film noir: with an alcoholic detective. In this case, a bearded Liam Neeson is introduced by throwing a racial slur at his police partner and sitting down to a coffee and two whiskey breakfast in the first two minutes of the film. Shortly after sitting down in a bar to enjoy his shots and newspaper, two unseen men enter and gun down the bartender. Naturally, Neeson pursues and guns down the men and their getaway driver in a brutally simple, but stylish shootout. But this isn’t quite the man with a very particular set of skills you know from other Neeson films. When he draws his gun in the bar, Neeson fumbles and drops it to the ground, saving his own life from a head-level shotgun blast but also allowing the men to get out. And different from the largely victimless gun battles in most thrillers, it is revealed later that Neeson’s pursuit of the men resulted in one of his stray bullets killing a seven-year-old girl.
The movie picks up eight years later, with a sober and clean-shaven (standard movie protocol to indicate that someone is trying to go straight) Liam Neeson no longer working for the police. Instead, he takes odd jobs from people like a drug-addicted artist (played by Boyd Holbrook) to investigate sensitive matters. While A Walk Among the Tombstone has the imagery of one of Neeson’s generic action movies, it is far different. While the threat and memories of violence are omnipresent, action scenes are few and far between. In another movie, a scene between a desperate man with a knife threatening to murder Neeson to save his own life would become a blood-splattered, choppily edited fight scene. In this movie, however, Neeson quietly explains that he would prefer not to take the knife and stab the man in the throat. And the man agrees to put down the knife. Simple as that.
This is a quiet and elegiac movie that has Liam Neeson investigating a series of disappearing women, slowly figuring out a complex and awful conspiracy. It’s far from the simple and immediate stakes of Taken, where it is clear who the bad guys are and who to trust. A Walk Among the Tombstones was written and directed by Scott Frank, who wrote Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report and the acclaimed James Mangold film Logan. You can see the similarities in all these films, stories about compromised men doing what they have to in order to survive while retaining a moral code. A Walk Among the Tombstones did moderately well at the box office and was given equally moderately good critical reviews, but disappeared from public consciousness between Taken 2, Taken 3, and the upcoming Taken 4. But despite the trappings of one of Neeson’s throwaways, it is an intense and stylish film. Do yourself a favor, steel your nerves, and watch it.