The recently released movie A Walk Among the Tombstones starring Liam Neeson is based upon the 10th in the series of Matt Scudder books by Lawrence Block. I’ve read the first twelve – and have enjoyed them all, with a few more still to read one of these days. I read this back in 2006, and my capsule review from my master spreadsheet reads thus …
This is the tenth in the series of Matt Scudder novels from Block, and they keep on getting better. The subsidiary characters are starting to have lives of their own, and Scudder, the ex-police, ex-drunk, maverick detective is getting more complex a personality with each novel. This one sees him finally establishing a firm relationship with ex-hooker Elaine, which makes a good sub-plot. The main story this time is the hunt for a particularly gruesome kidnapper and serial killer whose latest victim is the wife of a rich drug dealer. The dealer pays the ransom demand, and his wife is returned to him – dismembered! He can’t go to the police, so persuades Scudder to take up the chase to avenge his wife’s death. Absolutely gripping. (9/10)
Naturally I was keen to see the film…
The critics have been divided over it – I’ve seen reviews giving it 4/5, Mark Kermode only gave it 1, describing it as ‘head-bangingly dull’!
There has only been one previous outing for Scudder on screen – Jeff Bridges played him in a 1986 film based on the fifth novel in the series. I’ve not seen it, but IMDb suggests it’s not brilliant.
If you except Neeson’s dodgy American accent (and wig in the flashback), I felt he fitted the role rather well, inhabiting Scudder’s melancholy, downbeat style with the right amount of world-weariness.
The film starts with a flashback shoot-out – we have to set Scudder up for why he’s no longer a cop. He gets the bad guys, but a riccochet kills a bystander – a young girl. He was drunk – he left the force.
Cut to several years later, and what I didn’t mention above, was that there is a pair of sicko sadistic killers who are preying on the wives and girlfriends of drug dealers – the one Scudder takes the case for turns out to be the latest in a series… In these days when the internet was only just starting to take off, and cell-phones were not ubiquitous – the investigation means shoe-leather and pay-phones for Scudder. You know they’ll get the guys in the end.
However, and this is where the critics probably were split – all the way through the film, Scudder goes to his AA meetings – they keep him on the straight and narrow. It’s character-building, but doesn’t provide action – and lately, of course, Neeson has primarily been seen in action roles. Anyone who has read any of the novels will realise that AA is an important part of the sober-Scudder’s make-up.
I can’t remember exactly which of the Scudder books he first appears in, but he often gets some help from a smart street-kid called T.J. – particularly when confronted with technology. However T.J. wants to be a detective and always ends up getting involved – indeed without his help, they wouldn’t have tracked the bad guys down so quickly. He’s played by Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley, and although it gives Scudder the chance to play Dad when T.J. has a sickle-cell episode, it does hold up the plot.
The film definitely shows the grubbier side of New York – Carrier bags stuck in a chain-link fence of a dis-used lot. This contrasts with the nice pads of all the dealers whose wives have been targeted. Dan Stevens, (yes, Matthew from Downton Abbey) plays Danny Kristo the dealer whose case Scudder takes. He may have dark hair and a moustache here, but you can’t mistake those eyes.
One big thing that’s missing from this film is women in any major roles other than as victims or fellow alcoholics at meetings. There’s no girlfriend Elaine for Scudder – he lives on his own in a small appartment. Apparently, Scudder’s policeman friend Joe was changed into a woman cop for the film – but all her scenes were cut to keep the hardboiled noir feel. This is mens’ work. It may be wrong not to feature any strong women’s roles, but it does emphasise the brotherhood aspects. There isn’t enough time to give any of the guys a real home-life unlike in the books.
The violence, particularly against the victims is nasty, in book and film. If you can stand the gore, Neeson is a suitably haunted and thoughtful PI, and I’d rather like to see more of him as Scudder. (Film 7/10)
This will work either way – book then film, or film then book. I’d seriously recommend the books though…
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