A Walk Among the Tombstones, the sophomore directorial outing of veteran screenwriter Scott Frank, is almost a good movie. It’s got a sense of humor and suspense. It’s aware. It’s intelligent.

It also takes a few bizarre turns, some in damningly poor taste.

Liam Neeson in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones'
Image: Universal Pictures

Liam Neeson in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones'

Tombstones, adapted from the novel by Lawrence Bock, begins in the New York City of 1991. NYPD Detective Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is enjoying the breakfast of champions: a cup of coffee and two shots of whiskey. An odd beige sweater and wispy, writhing facial hair complete this portrait of a troubled man. Suddenly some gangsters walk in and start shooting. He shoots back.

Cut to New York City, 1999. Private Detective Scudder has shaved. He’s in AA now, and slices his steak with the side of his fork. It’s a nice routine—until he gets an unusual case. Millennial drug trafficker and Nabokov-reader Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) says that someone murdered his wife, and needs Scudder’s help getting revenge. Scudder at first doubts the quest—he’s unlicensed, he’s no angel, but killing? For a drug dealer? Not at his age. But when Kristo reveals the total depravity of the crimes committed by men we will come to know as Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson), Scudder can’t refuse to help.

Liam Neeson in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones'
Image: Universal Pictures

Liam Neeson in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones'

The movie well-crafted: bullets fly with a crisp cacophony; the music is vintage, pleasantly mysterious. There’s some great dialogue (“What gave me away?” “Everything. You’re weird, Jonas.”) Also, Frank is making strong choices from the director’s chair. There has been an undeniable trend in recent years—perhaps because so many directors cut their teeth on commercials and music videos—towards frenetic filmmaking, with shots that last only a few seconds before jumping to another angle and an over-reliance on close-ups. In contrast, half of Tombstones seems to be wide shots, with a measured editing pace. Liam Neeson can walk from the background to the foreground of a shot without seven different angles and close-ups on his feet being spliced in.

Neeson himself is in great form. This film lets him showcase his considerable talents as the archetypal film father, hopeless with computers but good at killing giant spiders (or drug dealers or terrorists), with one of the best deadpans around. And Tombstones is not just Liam Neeson Rescues a Missing Person VI. One great moment: “I bet all the corruption got to you, huh.” “Not really. It would have been hard to support my family without it.” The line doesn’t exactly shine on the page, but he owns it.

There’s a lot to like in this movie. This is why it’s such a shame that the whole thing was ruined by a few minutes of footage. Moments of sickening, unjustified sexual violence towards women soil the film—make you cringe and de-immerse you in a way that’s hard to recover from. It’s torture porn, plain and simple. Specificity would be overrated here. Let’s just say that it goes beyond a good old fashioned severed body part or two and wanders into a far darker realm. (This complaint is coming from a guy who likes horror movies, by the way.)

Dan Stevens in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones'
Image: Universal Pictures

Dan Stevens in 'A Walk Among the Tombstones'

It’s a shame that just a few minutes of footage manage to sour the whole movie. Take away those scenes and you have the best Neeson vehicle since Taken. And it’s smart! Tombstones clearly wants to say something. The main character is devoted to AA, but he’s helping drug dealers from criminals who have it out for drug dealers. The idea of addiction and recovery is never far. It certainly is the only time I’ve seen a final shoot-out juxtaposed with someone reciting all the Twelve Steps out loud.

In short: it could have been good. But with the random, gratuitous sadism, A Walk Among the Tombstones is like a dinner guest who, between many good conversations, throws a plate against the wall or pokes you with a fork. Despite the charm, you won’t be inviting them back.

Caveat Spectator

Lots of swearing (the whole range), lots of blood, women are tortured and ravished and their remains are strewn across New York City. 1991 Liam Neeson has a scary haircut.

Tim Wainwright's writing has been featured in The Atlantic, CT, and RealClearMarkets. He tweets hereand blogs here.

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(4 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (For strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity.)
Directed By
Scott Frank
Run Time
1 hour 54 minutes
Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
Theatre Release
September 19, 2014 by Universal Pictures
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