‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ works well until it doesn’t

Ann Hornaday (c) 2014, The Washington Post. In between doing “Taken” sequels and cashing paychecks for dross like “Battleship” and “Wrath of the Titans,” Liam Neeson manages to sneak in projects of real quality — films that remind viewers of the strength, sensitivity and wounded vulnerability that made us love him in the first place.

“The Grey,” a terrific and lamentably overlooked action thriller from 2012, was one such movie. And “A Walk Among the Tombstones” shows every sign of becoming one, until it clatters fatally off the rails. As Matt Scudder, a detective created by the prolific New York mystery writer Lawrence Block, Neeson has found a sturdy, credible alter ego, and in the hands of director Scott Frank he becomes a genuinely original movie hero who’s a throwback to another era, a rumpled, off-white knight full of grim wit, understated irony and haunted, sad-eyed gravitas.

An opening prologue gives us Scudder’s origin story, an episode in 1991 when, while still working as a New York City police officer, he wastes some thugs after downing his morning two-shots-and-a-cup-of-Joe. Eight years later he’s in Alcoholics Anonymous, sober but not necessarily completely clean, at least in his own recriminatory imagination.

Neeson embodies Scudder with a mournful visage but an energetic stride: He fills out the detective’s corduroy jacket with a hulking physical muscularity that’s on the verge of going to seed. It’s the perfect role for the 62-year-old actor, who manages to look younger and more vital than he has in years, but somehow more irretrievably damaged as well.

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The plot of “A Walk Among the Tombstones” gets underway when a fellow AA er approaches Scudder to find his missing sister-in-law. That leads the detective into a morally murky world in which his interests — and, by association, the audience’s rooting interest — happen to lie with a bunch of petty outer-borough lowlifes. Remember the movie called “Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” An alternative title for this one might be “Who Is Killing the Drug Dealers’ Wives of Brooklyn?”

Frank, best known for his screenplays for “Minority Report,” “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” directs “A Walk Among the Tombstones” with straightforward efficiency and a downcast, ’70s-era mood. Presumably we have Block to thank for the derivative — and troubling — conceit of psychopaths torturing women as a plot device, but Frank keeps the gratuitous luridness to a restrained minimum, at least until the film’s bizarre third (or, more accurately, fourth) act.

Most of the movie features Scudder walking the streets of Brooklyn, at one point taking on a precocious homeless teenager named T.J. (played with deadpan charisma by Brian “Astro” Bradley); their patter provides some of the most enjoyable material in “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” which is braced and leavened by welcome shots of bleak, cynical humor. (Asked if he quit the force because the corruption got to him, Scudder replies, “Not really. It would have been hard to support my family without it.”)

The mood is embellished by a marked lack of embellishment, especially when it comes to the supporting cast: Frank has wisely cast an ensemble of vaguely familiar but un-starry actors who deliver indelible performances as the motley assemblage of criminals and weirdos Scudder alternately courts and stalks. Particularly memorable is Olafur Darri Olafsson as a spooky cemetery groundskeeper named Loogan, whose rooftop exchange with Scudder is one of the film’s most satisfying one-scene chamber pieces.

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The look, style and smarts of “A Walk Among the Tombstones” seem like such a refreshingly toned-down departure from the outlandishness of Neeson’s “Taken” franchise that it’s all the more dismaying when the film shifts radically into a sadistic tableau of blood and gore. It’s a truism these days that every action-adventure, no matter how promising, winds up being “Transformers.” Apparently, now every urban thriller has to end up as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

In the case of “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” that means what has been a relatively sophisticated, quietly effective vehicle for Neeson at his best veers into the kind of hyperbolic nonsense of Neeson at his worst. With luck, Matt Scudder will return — with more of the same patter, and much less splatter.

Two stars. Rated R. Contains strong violence, disturbing images, profanity and brief nudity. 113 minutes.