Matt Scudder used to be a cop. And he used to be a drunk. It was the combination that turned him into … this.
He can still see the little 8-year-old girl he killed. It was a stray bullet in the midst of an unexpected shootout. All an accident. Still, he thinks about what might have happened if he’d not been drinking just before.
Nowadays, he’s something of a private detective. Unlicensed. He does favors—deliveries and little look-sees—for folks who need him. They … give him gifts. But not guns. Or booze. He hits his AA meetings on a regular basis. He’s got the eight-year-sober chip in his pocket to prove it.
But he’s wondering if he’ll ever make it to nine, what with this crazy case he’s on. A kidnapped woman got murdered. Her husband coughed up a $400,000 ransom, but it didn’t save her. Her body was found chopped into neatly wrapped pieces in the back of an abandoned car.
Truth be told, Matt didn’t want anything to do with this mess. “Leave it to the real cops,” he told the guy. But he knew straight away that this Kenny Kristo fella wasn’t gonna call any cops. There was something else involved. Probably drugs. And there were other little strings, tiny bits and pieces of the story that pleaded to be pulled at and worried over.
This wasn’t an isolated murder, he could sense it. The killers—yeah, there were definitely two of them—didn’t just pull Kenny’s name out of the phone book. There was a pattern here. They’d been watching the house. And they’d probably keep doing this.
So whether he wants to or not, Matt’s burning shoe leather on the grimy streets of New York. Retracing steps. Chewing the fat with shop owners and others who might have seen more than they realize. Hmmm. Maybe it even starts to feel good for Matt to stretch those police muscles again.
Hey, what can he say? Down deep, under the layers of wool, corduroy and thick, city-forged skin, Matt is a cop. Nothing more, nothing less. Maybe he’s genetically driven to do what good cops, sober cops, just naturally do: help people.
Once we get to know him, we realize that Matt is indeed a good guy who regrets and constantly works to atone for his bad past. He puts his life on the line repeatedly (often without any weapon in his hand) to try to save innocents. In fact, after at first leaving a killer’s fate to vigilante justice, Matt realizes he has to turn back and bring the man to the legal authorities instead.
He also comes to care for a homeless kid named TJ, who he meets during his investigation. Matt buys TJ some essentials and protects him. His actions, by movie’s end, indicate that he might even be taking on more of a parental role with the teen.
Matt regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in an effort to stay liquor- and drug-free. And he remembers a young woman reading off each of AA’s famous 12 steps, many of which talk of turning your weaknesses and flaws over to God and praying for the Lord’s power to remove those defects of character and carry an individual through.
Portraits of Kenny’s wife show her naked in several poses, some of them revealing full-frontal nudity. The camera also examines photographs of a topless woman who is in the middle of having sex.
When Matt first meets TJ at the public library, the boy thinks the grizzled guy wants to molest him.
We see a thug rip open a woman’s shirt, baring her breast. It’s stated that the men rape their victims; we hear a tape recording of a cruelly chuckling man and a crying woman.
A shootout between Matt and a trio of street punks leaves a bartender dead (shot in the chest point-blank with a shotgun). A headshot spouts blood all over a car’s windshield. Another guy is plugged in the leg and torso. And the camera looks down the gunsight as Matt takes aim and blows a third man off his feet. A guy gets his brains blown out later on.
We see the aforementioned girl after she gets hit in the eye by a careening slug. She’s dead. This horrible outcome helps us understand why Matt steps away from police work, alcohol and guns all at once. He tells TJ that carrying a gun on the street is the same as putting it to his own forehead and pulling the trigger.
But his sentiment certainly doesn’t put the brakes on all the bloodletting in this film.
All but one of the kidnapped women are killed. We see their body parts, wrapped in plastic and paper, in the back of a car, in a dumpster, on the grounds of a graveyard and floating in a pond. The one teen girl who survives has several of her fingers chopped off. Indeed, the bad guys display all manner of bloody tools and blades that they use to maim, torture and kill. And we see them use some of them. A large hatchet is driven into a chest. A wire garrote is used to slash open a throat. We also see a killer wrap the wire around a woman’s breast. (The camera finally looks away before he cuts and she screams.)
Blood covers a kitchen floor and walls, and somebody bleeds out on a stairway. One man walks off an apartment building rooftop to crash to a bloody death on a car down below. Another is pounded in the knee and face with a baseball bat, leaving his nose and mouth bleeding. Taser jolts hit a head and a crotch. Boys beat up TJ in an alley, giving him a black eye and a cut on his forehead.
About 25 f-words and 15 s-words. We also hear a handful each of “a–” and “b–ch.” Christ’s name is abused once or twice.
Matt walks into a bar and downs two shots. Kenny drinks hard liquor as well. The killers buy a guy drinks to better pump him for information. Kenny’s brother Peter is a drug addict who attends AA meetings with Matt. They’re not working for Pete, though: We see him stoned with a bag of drugs in his hand. He regularly has a cigarette in his mouth. A girl and her drug-dealing boyfriend snort coke. And we hear quite a lot about the drug “trade” and the people who are either caught in it or are furthering it.
TJ voices a number of personal conspiratorial theories about how society is purposely pushing down black youths like himself, including the fact that people keep offering him “sperm-killing” soda.
A Walk Among the Tombstones isn’t a kill-’em-all Taken-style actioner. Neither is it some kind of man-against-the-monsters supernatural thriller like the title might suggest. In fact, at first it’s hard to see where tombstones fit in at all. Because this is actually more of a gumshoe investigator’s tale, a gritty cop-turned-unlicensed-detective story (based on a rough-and-tumble Lawrence Block novel).
Liam Neeson’s Matt Scudder is primarily interested in seeking out clues to a crime. As he sloshes through the refuse in the steaming gutters of New York, he’d rather be talking to witnesses and untangling the threads of a nasty killing spree than starting one. He’d rather recite AA’s 12 steps and “humbly ask God to remove his shortcomings” than try to violently purge the defects from others.
It’s that earnest effort to save, to beat time, to help the desperate and to make amends for past wrongs that turns a few steps in this long walk in the right direction.
It’s all the rest of them that keep it from going very far.
For while this R-rated and often dour flick doesn’t applaud violence, it certainly crams lots of it in. It’s tense, it’s moody and prickly, and it’s ultimately bloody and grim and deadly. Which, of course, finally leads us right up to those tombstones.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.