The opening credits proceed with a deliberate, understated sense of showmanship. The star’s name isn’t just above the title, but intertwined with it: the credit says “Liam Neeson in,” and then the title A Walk Among the Tombstones appears. It’s a simple and logical distinction: Late-period Liam Neeson, reborn from mentor figure to action-thriller star, is the reason this movie got made, and his movie star status is why people will probably see it. Strange, that writer/director Scott Frank’s detective-ish adaptation of a long-running series of crime novels about ex-cop and investigator Matthew Scudder (Neeson) is considered something of a passion project. The character was previously and only briefly incarnated as Jeff Bridges in 8 Million Ways to Die (1986), but like Jack Reacher, the Scudder franchise seems like a perfect fit for the star/thriller boom market of the 90s (that is to say, a poor but entertained man’s version of the kinds of thrillers proliferated in the 70s).
It’s appropriate, then, that A Walk Among the Tombstones: The Motion Picture has been reconfigured as (brace yourself to feel either old or confused) a 1999 period piece.
The original novel by Lawrence Block (who possesses almost as good a cop/detective name as Matthew Scudder or Jack Reacher) came out in 1992; it’s neither the first Scudder adventure (that would be The Sins of the Fathers, 1976) nor one that actually came out in the period this movie depicts (Even the Wicked, 1997, or Everybody Dies, 1998). The movie’s time-jump from Scudder’s cop days to his retirement as an unlicensed investigator means that future movies, should they happen, could also be set during the 90s, depriving Neeson’s Scudder of tech-based cheats like smartphones or Google.
Just to be safe, the movie also emphasizes Scudder’s tech aversion; he does his research at a library, and seems steadfastly clueless about this Yahoo! business that teenage runaway TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley) uses instead of microfiche. Giving Scudder a smartmouthed African-American sidekick, even part time, is just one of the moves Tombstones makes that could sound terribly hacky but turn out surprisingly well. Frank has their conversation in a diner play out mostly in fixed two-shots; throughout the movie, he lets his compositions breath. The material he’s working with is basically lurid, but very well-wrought.
Scudder is hired by Kenny (Dan Stevens), a wealthy young drug dealer, to find out who kidnapped his wife—and seemingly murdered her even after he paid them for her return. At first, it plays like a traditional mystery, and Frank compresses a series of low-key questionings with sharp edits. Eventually, though, the investigation becomes both more and less: bigger than a mere whodunit, until it doesn’t really matter and the movie turns its eye to, if not exactly bloody revenge, stand-offs and altercations with (spoiler alert?) dead-eyed, amoral lunatics. Even at its most boilerplate, though, Frank wrings out some memorable images, like a staircase dripping blood like something out of gothic horror.
Frank also nails the ’99 NYC details—that production of The Iceman Cometh really was advertised on taxis!—and adds a running thread about Y2K. It’s meant to reinforce what a troubled pretty-bad guy says around the halfway point: “People are afraid of the wrong things.” Meaning, I guess, that everyone was all freaked out about Y2K compliance and the new millennium, and they didn’t even think that they might be kidnapped and tortured by money-hungry sadists. In other words, the movie’s thesis is pretty facile, unless Frank honestly feels that the American public has been hoodwinked from living in fear of sadistic airport-novel-style serial killers. It’s a serious-minded thriller that doesn’t quite earn its rainy mournfulness (though its periodic moments of levity play fine).
Regardless of its low aims held aloft by strong filmmaking, Tombstones represents a higher class of pulp for Neeson, and makes better use of his imposing frame and commanding, inaccurate American accent than the Taken pictures. In that series, Neeson coils back his rage, giving coolheaded instructions to his loved ones about how to prepare for the storm of vengeance he’s about to unleash. In Tombstones, he goes quieter—he’s almost ostentatiously self-contained and isolationist in his recovery, making so little show of his emotions that it feels like a separate show itself. It’s presumably part of Scudder’s recovery; he’s another Neeson alcopholic, his second of the year following his role in the sillier but equally entertaining Non-Stop. The twelve-steppin’ bits don’t amount to much (they’re part of the movie’s veneer of self-seriousness), but they’re a nice excuse for a flashback of Neeson drinking coffee and shots with the casualness of a well-practiced routine. And despite the restraint, he does get to utter sonorous, hard-bitten threats into a phone. Everybody wins.
In the aftermath of A.O. Scott’s essay about the recession of American adulthood, a side conversation on Twitter considered the identities of our last remaining “adult” movie stars, landing on Denzel Washington (whose The Equalizer drops next weekend) and Neeson. Both Neeson (age 62) and Washington (about to turn 60) are closer to retirement age than even late-onset adulthood; maybe that’s the point, or maybe if the bar is set at hardened and/or grizzled male avengers, we ought to re-evaluate what adulthood “should” look like in 2014 (is there something beyond physical looks that makes Matt Damon sub-adult? What about Jason Bateman? Michael Fassbender?). Regardless, The Maze Runner, a new sci-fi movie also adapted from a bestseller, doesn’t make a great case.
It opens on a memory-wiped Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) in a mysterious freight elevator, heading upwards. The movie hurtles into action with great and admirable efficiency, but even in its first few scenes it can’t stop juicing itself with big score stings and frantic overacting. Thomas lands in the Glade, an outdoor society surrounded by a high-walled maze, and run by young-adult men. The characters are young adults because it emphasizes their tentative grasp on creating their own world or more likely because young adults in these situations sell in book form, and movies based on those book forms (occasionally) sell tickets.
The central dilemma of The Maze Runner is the conflict between curious Thomas, who wants to take a shot at getting through the perilous, mysterious maze and escaping this limited world, and perma-scowling Gally (Will Poulter), who wants to maintain status quo and not fuck with the maze. It would be a good hook for a sci-fi movie; it is apparently also a good hook for a movie where Young Adults stand around talking about a maze. All of this nothing-talk happens without much regard for atmosphere or character development, though its jacked-up running in place still nearly put me to sleep. “Look, I’m sorry to rush this,” one of the boys says at one point, to which I replied, silently: you don’t seem that sorry.
When the fellows actually go into the maze, there’s some sorta neat production design, and pursuit by an inventively design species of creatures that are some kind of buggy alien-looking thing with mechanized spider-legs and not, as I first thought, Kenneth Branagh in Wild Wild West. By the time the movie has gone 90 minutes without offering much of interest—it brings in a single girl (Kaya Scodelario) whose name is Teresa but could be called Future Revelations—I started expecting the movie to cut off at any moment, and demand money for any additional plot twists. Indeed, it ends by offering answers with their own questions and, more importantly, teasing a sequel, like a JV Resident Evil without the exploitation pull of zombies and/or Milla Jovovich. I hate to play the age card, but all of the running in and out of the maze made me feel like a grumpy old man. Liam Neeson would get the maze on the phone, threaten to demolish it, and then fucking demolish it. I’m not sure this would be adult behavior, mind, but at least it would leave me feeling like an adrenaline-jacked teenager instead of a stultified one.