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A Walk Among the Tombstones

As a longtime fan of Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder books, I’m probably the worst person in the world to offer a useful critique on this adaptation, based on a book that appeared about halfway into the series.

Scudder, if you don’t know, is the modern heir to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, by more or less unanimous acclamation of lovers of crime fiction. He is a former New York City cop and recovering alcoholic who makes a living as an unlicensed detective.

Block, if you don’t know, despite having called Manhattan home since the early sixties, was raised on the decidedly less mean streets of North Buffalo, Starin Avenue to be precise. He has written more than a hundred novels, many under pseudonyms, though it’s the Scudder series (begun in 1976) that put at least one of most every award offered by the mystery writers of the world on his mantle.

Scudder appeared on screen once before, in 1986’s Eight Million Ways to Die, and while Jeff Bridges was well cast in the role, not much else remained of the novel in Oliver Stone’s screenplay. For one thing, he moved the story to Los Angeles, and Scudder is nothing if not a New Yorker.

That’s not a mistake made by this long gestating film (under the aegis of Danny Devito’s Jersey Films, it was originally set for production in 2002, with Harrison Ford as Scudder.) A Walk Among The Tombstones covers the length and breadth of Manhattan, and does so ably and often beautifully, if with the kind of cold beauty you might expect in a story whose villains are a pair of psychos kidnapping the wives of drug dealers, as much for the money as self-righteous thrills.

What’s likely to make it the top box office draw of the weekend is Liam Neeson, the least likely but most popular action star of the decade. To be honest, he’s not my image of Scudder. I’ve always pictured someone less imposing, more of a workaday guy. But that doesn’t sell movies, and if this Scudder is more formidable on screen than he is on the page, Neeson adds the sense of guilt and disappointment that makes Scudder memorable.

Tombstones is the second film directed by Scott Frank, who made his name scripting witty crime films like Dead Again, Get Shorty and Out of Sight. Unlike those, this minimizes the chatter. There’s no narration to replicate Block’s first-person storytelling, and viewers who like all the loose ends tied up may not care for Frank’s more elliptical style. It’s a lean, mean tale, probably a bit gruesome for some tastes, but consistently engrossing and exciting. And if it leads you to pick up some of Block’s novels to delve deeper into this flawed hero, well, all the better.

You can read M. Faust's 2008 interview with Lawrence Block here.

Watch the trailer for A Walk Among the Tombstones

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