Fifth time's a charm, right? "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is the fifth feature-length film made from Lawrence Block's fiction and the fifth time Liam Neeson goes after psychos who take people hostage. (If he made "Hamlet" now, Ophelia would be kidnapped by Norwegian mobsters.)
Well, this is the best adaptation of Block - in fact, the only decent one. It doesn't alter the standard serial killer scenario, but writer-director Scott Frank knows his way around crime dramas: Seven of his first eight screenplays (including "Out of Sight" and "Get Shorty") were crime-based, and he marches us forward with grim skill toward the melodramatic ending.
Meanwhile, Neeson gives his most world-weary performance as Matthew Scudder, the former cop and former alcoholic who now works as an unlicensed private detective. He can't legally charge a fee, but clients give him "gifts" for performing jobs.
Scudder hunts two sadists who kidnap wives and children of drug dealers, figuring their victims won't call the police. They collect ransoms but invariably kill their hostages, and we never find out what motivates them beyond garden-variety savagery.
So the film's greater pleasures seep in around the edges of the plot: the gradual revelation of why Scudder quit the police force, the strong supporting performances (notably by Ólafur Darri Ólafson as the caretaker of a graveyard) and the relationship between Scudder and T.J., a savvy but homeless black teenager who becomes his sidekick. (Brian "Astro" Bradley stands out.)
Because the movie takes place in 1999, and the story depends on callers using public phone booths - explain to your kids what those were - there's a period charm to the piece.
Frank also deglamorizes the private-eye myth. Scudder tells T.J. the key to success as a detective is having a strong bladder, a reference to the patience required to unearth clues in the field without being distracted. We see him do door-to-door work that leads to the case being solved, juggling conflicting reports from witnesses.
Then, in the last 20 minutes, the movie gets dumbed down. The criminals make a mistake they'd never have made, Frank throws in the grisly violence some audiences demand, and a completely silly act means the story's natural ending gets followed by an unnatural one.
No matter what happens, the 62-year-old star holds everything together by sheer personality. That big nodding head and long, slumped body tell us all we need to know about the weight Scudder bears every day, and nobody brings quite the same gravity to this genre as Neeson.