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A nasty bit of noir

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    Liam Neeson is appropriately grim as the troubled private investigator Matthew Scudder in “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” the first in what could be a series of films based on Lawrence’s Block’s crime novels.
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It’s not for nothing that the names of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are reverentially referenced in writer-director Scott Frank’s adaptation of the tenth novel in Lawrence Block’s best-selling series featuring private eye Matthew Scudder. Distinctly and proudly old-fashioned in its retro, film noir vibe, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is notable for its dark atmospherics and strong performance by Liam Neeson in the latest example of his unlikely late-career transformation into an action hero. Less impressive in terms of plotting and characterizations, the film should have a strong box-office opening, but its relentlessly downbeat tone may prevent it from launching a franchise.

Scudder, who first appeared in print way back in 1976’s "The Sins of the Fathers," is a terrific character that Neeson expertly embodies with his usual physically commanding presence and world-weary gravitas. The film’s tense 1991-set opening scene efficiently provides the character’s backstory as an alcoholic NYC cop who gave up the booze and the badge when a shootout on the streets of New York City went tragically awry. Cut to 1999, when he’s working as unlicensed private investigator who explains that "I do favors for people … in return they give me gifts."

Enlisted by fellow AA meeting attendee and drug addict Peter (Boyd Holbrook), Scudder reluctantly takes a case involving Peter’s prosperous drug-dealing brother Kenny (Dan Stevens, in a sharp departure from his heartthrob role in "Downton Abbey"), whose wife was kidnapped and returned dead despite his having paid a $400,000 ransom. Kenny demands that Scudder find the culprits and bring them to him for retribution that clearly does not involve the legal system.

‘A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES’
Rated: R
* *  1/2
Opens Friday

After the discovery of another female victim, this time left in pieces in trash bags in a park in Brooklyn’s historic Greenwood Cemetery, the trail eventually leads to a pair of serial killers (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) who target criminals unlikely to involve the authorities. After discovering their identity from the cemetery’s groundskeeper (a very creepy Olafur Darri Olafsson), Scudder pursues the sociopathic duo with the unlikely help of TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley), a homeless teenager who aspires to being a gumshoe himself.

Things come to a head after the kidnapping of the young daughter of a Russian drug dealer (Sebastian Roché), with Scudder getting directly involved in the ensuing negotiations, which include the sort of tense, "Taken"-style taunting phone calls with the killers that Neeson could by now perform in his sleep. The film’s final act, featuring violent set pieces in a basement and the spooky nighttime environs of the cemetery, ratchets up the action considerably.

At one point Scudder explains to his young apprentice that the main attribute a private eye must possess is a "strong bladder." Viewers may need one as well to get through the film’s dull middle section, filled with long, talky patches in which nothing much really happens. The compensation is that Neeson’s emotionally reticent hero is consistently engaging and refreshingly vulnerable, preferring to talk his way out of tense situations and for the most part not even carrying a gun.

Director Frank ("The Lookout"), whose screenwriting credits include "Out of Sight," clearly has an affinity for the material, investing the proceedings with a darkly compelling atmosphere that recalls the best noirs of the ’40s and ’50s. The film benefits greatly from having been shot in various seedy NYC neighborhoods — not to mention the spooky gothic cemetery that inspires the title — with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. ("The Master") delivering a desaturated color palette accentuating the overall gloominess.

If the film does launch a series, there’s plenty of material to draw from, with some 16 other novels (including "Eight Million Ways to Die," adapted into a 1986 film) and a short story collection published to date. It sure beats the prospect of seeing Neeson once again exploiting his "special skills" in the upcoming "Taken 3."

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