Ex-alcoholic Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is a private detective hired by drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) to track down his wife’s killers. Along the way, Scudder befriends homeless teenager TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) and uncovers a much darker tale of serial-killing sadomasochists, underground adult movies, and the Twelve Steps Program.
The film is based on a novel from a Lawrence Block series and references Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but does so in a way that suggests screenwriter/director Scott Frank looked them up on Wikipedia, half-remembered some of their stories, threw everything together, and went from there. The result is a tedious walk-through, combined with grungy violence, blatant chauvinism, two-dimensional characters, racial (and youth-related) stereotypes, unintentional or worryingly distasteful humour, and absolutely no tension or emotional connection whatsoever.
The loathsome attitude of its characters and narrative towards women, justice and money is repugnantly akin to the appallingly-directed, poorly-performed and right-wing Death Wish. Its most dramatic element is the fear that A Walk Among the Tombstones threatens to become A Nail in the Coffin for its star’s career. Fortunately, even this falls through as the film is far too dull and far too forgettable to even have the impact of a hammer hitting a nail.
Neeson was once one of the greatest and most soulful actors on screen and he still has a presence and a dignity that masterfully conveys his commitment to his craft and the talent he possesses. Nevertheless, even he cannot make this watchable (which is saying something considering that he has saved films like The Grey, Unknown and Taken from utter vacuity). Meanwhile, Stevens is clearly relishing roles that spring him from Downton Abbey’s starched shirts, and the potential in both himself and Bradley is evident, but each have made much more interesting films that showcase their full abilities.
Despite their well-intentioned pretensions to playing meaningful characters, the cast are entirely inconsequential in a hollow film that is nothing more than a clip show of Frank’s attempts to look like a good director.
In order to do this, Frank spends the first thirty minutes of the film experimenting with interesting camera angles and putting the plot on the back burner, before moving on to corny exposition and worn-out tropes of the hardboiled crime thriller. He clearly likes the genre he’s working in but his attempts to use as many of its stalwart phrases, narrative devices and character back stories as possible appears excruciatingly childish and ham-fisted, lacking even the slightest glimmer of the confident, breezy approach he seems to be aiming for.
Scudder’s dark past as a crooked, drunken cop who killed three robbers in the line of duty is an exhausted premise to begin with, but then Frank adds layers of affected dialogue in an effort to sound more like his source material. Instead, this gives the film an air of the “I’m a cop” sketch from Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s television series, in which two ‘cops’ sit in a bar drinking whiskey and talk in very thick American accents about the fact that they’re “cops” and how “a cop knows a cop” when a “cop” sees one.
Worse still, Frank seems confused about whether his film is set in the underworld of Philip Marlowe, the city of Charles Bronson’s gun-slinger from Death Wish, or the modern grime of Seven. As such, the dialogue is a bad imitation of novels from the 1940s, yet the visual tone and nasty sexual violence harks back to exploitation films of the 1970s, and the jokes about how Scudder needs TJ to work computers for him and a shot of the still standing World Trade Centre suggest a setting of the late 1990s.
On a good day, Frank’s direction looks like a decent episode of Law and Order rather than a gritty, credible thriller, as he attempts the skill of Scorsese with the nuance of Michael Winner. The opening credits depict a naked woman writhing in a white bed with a man who eventually turns out to be her captor, who has gagged and bound her. This strives to build up an erotic joke with a pitch-black punchline, but instead of a knowing nod acknowledging how good the director is, it provokes a sigh and an awkward grimace, which ultimately is the only appropriate response to this film.
Ill-conceived and poorly executed, Tombstones is mediocre at best, with sparse plot and shallow characterisation. The film is an ego-trip for its director, serving little purpose and leaving no lasting impression, neither providing entertainment nor provoking outrage, offering nothing but incessant blandness.