“Scudder” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a beamer [leather worker] who scrapes skins by hand or machine…to remove flesh and traces of hair.” Crime writer Lawrence Block may have had that definition in mind in the 1970s when he dreamed up Matthew Scudder, the protagonist who so far has appeared in 17 Block novels. Late of the N.Y.P.D., now an unlicensed private investigator, Scudder solves crimes for criminals who are unable to petition the police. In a way, he scrapes away at confounding clues to reveal the raw skin of the facts. In return, he gets paid under the table and off the books. As he puts it, “I do favors for friends, and they give me gifts.”
Hollywood tried a Scudder adaptation in 1986: the feeble 8 Million Ways to Die, with Jeff Bridges in the lead and a script by Oliver Stone that director Hal Ashby threw out so the actors could improv. After a nearly three-decade moratorium, Matt is back, this time assuming the more imposing presence of Liam Neeson. Director-screenwriter Scott Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, from the 10th Scudder novel, published in 1992, sends the P.I. in pursuit of two major sickos: crafty sadists who kidnap the wives or children of drug dealers, demand a huge ransom and, when it’s paid, mutilate and kill their victims. Repellently, they fit the dictionary definition of scudder better than Scudder does.
But Neeson brings Scudder far more gravity than the young Bridges did to the earlier movie. At 62, Neeson is a leading man with a face of chiseled concrete, an action-film hero whose natural state is grim stasis. He’s also become a major box-office magnet. Five low-budget Neeson thrillers— Taken and its sequel, plus Unknown, The Grey and Non-Stop — have earned more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office. He has become his own B-movie genre, and now he wants to move up to A-minus with A Walk Among the Tombstones. That chatty title, in the wake of a filmography that has little use for definite articles and none for prepositions, hints at Neeson’s aspirations to a higher screen IQ.
You get that here — literary allusions and citations of AA’s 12-step pledge — along with a dose of sadism not seen much in upmarket American movies since the glory gory days of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. Like those films, this one is set in the ’90s; it begins in 1991, when Scudder, then a married, alcoholic cop, chases down two perps and accidentally kills a girl, and soon moves to 1999, when he is off the force, sober and alone, and his fellow New Yorkers are anxious about the looming Y2K computer glitch. They should have been preparing for al Qaeda.
His first client is Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), a silk-smooth drug trafficker who paid $400,000 in ransom money for the privilege of finding his wife returned to him in pieces. The killers, Albert (David Harbour) and Ray (Adam David Thompson), have now abducted the young daughter (Danielle Rose Russell) of a Russian drug lord (Sebastian Roché). Scudder’s job: negotiate to get the girl back alive. And then, because he’s the relentless, remorseless hero in the crime genre, do unto them.
Frank, who scripted the crime movies Dead Again, Get Shorty and Out of Sight, flays the Block novel of Scudder’s support group: his AA sponsor Jim Faber, the barkeep Mick Ballou. Intent on underlining Scudder’s loner status, Frank also omits Matt’s girlfriend, the former prostitute Elaine. Jenny Abraham makes a welcome cameo appearance as a doctor at Bellevue, but the movie has no significant female roles. The few women we see speak little but get to scream as their more ornamental body parts are severed — scudded — by the kidnapper psychos. (To complete the PC-outrage perfecta, the killers are most likely gay.)
Except for the slicing scenes, the movie mostly moseys, as Scudder sifts for clues to the killers in their Brooklyn hideouts. These aren’t not the cool neighborhoods, which have made Brooklyn the hot borough, with Manhattan as its stodgy elder sibling. They are the last ungentrified sections, where the streetlights seem too dim, and the air is humid with threat and desperation. Another new movie, The Drop, written by crime novelist Dennis Lehane, also walks these mean streets: Brighton Beach for The Drop, Red Hook and Sunset Park for Tombstones, with inevitable visits to the landmark Green-Wood Cemetery, the final residence of Leonard Bernstein, Horace Greeley, The Wizard of Oz’s Frank Morgan and Red Hook’s own Crazy Joey Gallo.
Green-Wood is where Scudder grills a creepy groundskeeper (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, always a treat to watch) who leads him into the netherworld of sado-video frequented by the killers. Our taciturn Holmes also acquires a Watson: T.J. (rapper Brian “Astro” Bradley), a street tyke who has an improbable love for old-time detectives Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and uses Daunte Culpepper, the name of the Minnesota Vikings quarterback, as his nom-de-sleuth. Piquant choice for Frank: he wipes out Scudder’s girlfriend but lets him keep his surrogate son.
It’s also amusing to see Stevens, the British actor warmly remembered as Lady Mary’s sainted husband on Downton Abbey, slip into his new career playing scuzzy Yanks with a patina of class. He completes the transformation this week in the socio-horror film The Guest, which has more to offer in chills and chutzpah than the Scudder movie.
The cluttered climax, in a Mother Bates cellar, explains little of the killers’ psychology; for that you have to read the book. But it does let Neeson assert his primacy as the cinema’s most graven, grieving, grievous senior citizen — a figure who doesn’t so much star in his films as haunt them. This ghost of a movie star is never more at home than when walking among the tombstones.