If we were to believe most crime thrillers, it always rains in New York. It would also be apparent that most detective work is done at night in backstreets and subways or, if done in the day, that the light is always the colour of chilled dishwater. The city always looks plague-ridden, its filthy inhabitants mouldering and mad with crime, its buildings exhausted with the polluted drizzle, its detectives corrupt and terminally depressed. Yep, these are the weary tropes of the New York noir and Scott Frank’s new picture A Walk among the Tombstones, which does little to spice, twist or shed them- though it is a fairly thrilling and decent expression of them.
Our depressed copper and anti-hero, Matt Scudder, is played by the ever-fatigued Liam Neeson, fresh (or not-so-fresh) from saving his daughter from a gang of sex traffickers (Taken) and his wife from the parent of said sex trafficker (Taken 2). The film opens in 1991, poor Matt is a grizzled, greasy, hard-drinking, hard-smoking cop working for the NYPD. He gets pissed, ends up shooting a load of people, including one rather unfortunate little girl, and decided to call it quits – both from policing and drinking.
Cut to 1999 and Matt is clean-shaven, showers regularly and is a frequenter of Alcoholics Anonymous, though he still has that classic Neeson melancholy and gravel-throat. His somnolent routine is interrupted when he’s hired by a drug-dealer (played by a dashing Dan Stevens, from Downton to Downtown) whose wife has been tragically dismembered – and he wants our cop to find the killers. Matt, being a man of Principle and Justice, takes the job.
What follows is a fairly conventional detective drama, as seen pretty much every night on British television (Luther, Broadchurch, The Bridge, Messiah etc.). Along the way, Matt befriends a young miscreant called T.J who spends his time ‘making a mess’ in public libraries, drawing what appears to be violent pornography and waxing cynical about the stupidity of the Y2K crisis (this is 1999, after all – references at the ready!). He also believes that fizzy drinks are designed to lower the sperm-count of the poor and carries a gun he doesn’t know how to use at all times.
Despite these strange traits, Matt inexplicably elects this promising candidate as his sidekick – a weirder pairing hasn’t been seen since Mikael Blomkvist met a girl called Lisbeth Sandler. I really couldn’t help but thinking that T.J is an absurd and unnecessary character – Matt evidently likes him, but not that much, and he doesn’t really do anything except stand in the way until the end, when he is finally of use. In any case, the two chase down the brutal killers, one of whom is capably, if clownishly, played by David Harbour. The film ends with the obligatory detective-in-peril scene.
Now despite being about as constrained by the dreary tropes of the genre as a madman in a straightjacket, the film is atmospheric and it does what it does – that is, a somewhat clichéd cop-drama – pretty well. The harsh, grizzly lighting of noir is expertly deployed and Matt’s descent into that New York grimoire of drugs, low-life and crime is at least enough to entertain. And, as with Taken, Neeson once again proves that he can not only handle a mediocre script with aplomb, he alone is capable of making bits here and there shine. He does well. Having said this, there is really very little here that one couldn’t see if one just bought the boxset of any TV crime drama series. So, it’s up to you; spend 8 quid on a cinema ticket or just tune in to the BBC. Either way, you’ll get depressed detectives, dreary light and dismemberment.