Friday, September 19, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

Sometimes, before you get to an analysis of the merits of a film, you have to react as a human being.

On that level, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is one of the most black-hearted, degrading and dispiriting major studio movies in memory. Writer-director Scott Frank wallows in violence against women here, playing images and sounds of women in profound distress as long as he thinks he can get away with it before having Liam Neeson turn them off and shake his head in disgust, as if that lets Frank off the hook. In some ways, Frank's treatment of women is more insidious than that of the lunatic serial rapists and killers Neeson tails. They're up-front and unabashed about their pathology, but Frank tries to have it both ways, putting the victims through the wringer, feigning sympathy, and looking to us for approbation.

One might also pause to reflect on the state of Neeson's career. This once important actor has now abandoned any pretense of a quality-control filter to chase paychecks from whatever tawdry and trashy rathole they are dangled. As a retired cop (he quit after firing a bullet that ricocheted and killed a young girl) hired by a drug dealer (Dan Stevens of "Downton Abbey") to bring him the men who've kidnapped his wife (the clich√© count adds up faster than the tote board on the Chabad Telethon), Neeson sleepwalks his way through a dreary and rain-soaked New York that has rarely looked worse on film. Though the headline on Neeson's obit will undoubtedly reference "Schindler's List," that performance and good work in such pictures as "Husbands and Wives" seem like a lifetime ago when recalled through the prism of "Taken 2," "The Grey," "Non-Stop" and this piece of garbage. 

Aside from its sheer depravity, Frank's script fails at the structural level. There are neither thrills nor any mystery to solve. Neeson interviews the groundskeeper who found the bloody and dismembered body of a previous kidnap victim. The guy's a weirdo straight out of central casting who looks away each time he answers a question. Neeson intuits the guy's hiding something (gee, ya think?) and follows him to his apartment, which just happens to have a perfect view into the victim's place. The gardener leads Neeson to the two real bad guys, whose identities are revealed within the first half-hour of this two-hour bomb. Rather than mete out information for intelligent viewers to piece together, Frank spoon-feeds us at each step along the way. The clunky climax - complete with a re-awakening √† la Glenn Close in the bathtub in "Fatal Attraction" - is no more sophisticated or fraught with moral complexity than a barroom brawl. 

Special mention must also be made of "Astro," credited here as Brian "Astro" Bradley, an unctuous and loathsome little twerp who plays TJ, a homeless kid with whom Neeson strikes up an unlikely friendship and who quickly proves the most adept (and annoying) kid detective this side of Norman D. Golden II in "Cop and a Half," upon whom I now look back with relative fondness. This kid's got all the jargon, which he unloads on Neeson's Luddite cop in scenes meant to invoke out-of-touch intergenerational humor. This kid shouldn't be on the streets; he should be teaching a course on electronics at ITT Tech.

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" is ugly to look at and ugly on the inside, and goes on forty minutes too long. Here is a sure contender for any self-respecting viewer's list of the worst films of 2014.

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