A Walk Among the Tombstones
At a time when odd gimmicks with one sentence premises roam free at the theaters, I was still kinda shocked when Universal Pictures decided to release a gritty cop drama about Liam Neeson trying to figure out which frozen pizza he'd like eat for dinner. It's a bold move, and frankly, it paid off with some bold cinema. Maybe not as bold as a Tombstone Double Top 4 Meat Pizza, but pretty bold nonetheless.
A Walk Among the Tombstones begins at a Kroger in 1987; cops didn't have to pay for their snacks, and Detective Matt Scudder (Neeson) is on his day off. A couple of guys came in to rob the place. Scudder chased them into the frozen food section, shot two dead. Hit the third one in the leg. But, you see, one bullet took a bad hop. It hit the glass where the frozen pizza is stored. 47 pizzas had to be thrown away that day. Fast forward to 1999. Scudder, now a private detective, does favors for people. In return, they give him gifts. Mostly knick-knacks and stuffed animals. [toned-down, indie version of "Black Hole Sun" starts playing ominously from the sky] He gets a job to find the missing wife of a drug dealer. He thinks that it is linked to several other missing women cases. He also thinks that maybe he'd like chicken wings for dinner, but they never turn out as good as he'd like them to when he buys them from the grocery store. So he instead pops a Tombstone Light Veggie pizza into his oven, but adds some pepperoni to it anyway. He's not a vegetarian, but he does like the wide array of ingredients on the Veggie pizza that they don't equally include on the Tombstone Supreme pizzas. He would never lay a hand on a straight up Veggie pizza. But it's the Tombstone Garlic Dipping Bites Pizza that he should be scared of. He was obsessed. It's not pizza. "How can I find more of these?" He asks the Kroger stock boy. "They've been discontinued, Detective Scudder." [stock boy jumps off roof] [Scudder is now on the phone with a Tombstone Pizza sales representative, complaining about the discontinuation of his favorite pizza novelty] "You're scared of all the wrong things, Detective Scudder. Once the pizzas are in the van, they're just ingredients." [punches mirror] [starts several gunfights] [looks in frozen pizza aisle, sees a new Tombstone product: Brick Oven Mexican Style Pizza] The replacement stock boy asks, "Have you ever dealt with pizza like this?" "...Not like this..." [Scudder has a quiet meal eating this new pizza in the dark while watching Jeopardy] [he gets a few questions right in some of the pop culture categories, but is mostly way off] [Black Hole Sun gets even louder] A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES.
But in all seriousness, one of my favorite aspects of this film was the contrast of the serial killers' dumb whimsy-speak vs Liam Neeson's straight forward, no-nonsense grasp of the situation. Nothing makes me hate a movie serial killer more (outside of the fact they kill people) then when they start talking in over-confident, intentionally creepy, weird dialogue. My favorite exchange in the entire film was when Liam Neeson is talking on the phone with the killers, trying to hammer out a kidnap deal, and the killer goes "I'll show up with the girl, and I'll have a knife to her throat, for my protection." Neeson - "That's fine." Killer - "It will be a pristine blade, pressed just slightly below her supple windpipe." -Neeson - "(sighs) Whatever. You're going to meet us at 10:30?" It's like he's dealt with morons like this his whole career. It was great. Later in the movie, when he has a gun pointed at his head, the killer says "Why aren't you scared?" And he just shrugs it off, "Eh, shoot me if you want. I don't care." I don't know about you guys, but I kind of really want to see more of Detective Who Gives a Crap. He gets the job done. The worst thing he did in the whole movie was the regrettable choice to add some pineapple chunks to his Tombstone Half & Half frozen pizza with sausage and pepperoni. Pineapple won't taste good on that. Go back to California Pizza Kitchen!
It's an alright movie overall, I guess. The cinematography is great at times, and there's several well-executed sequences of tension. I don't know if I want to call the whole movie entertaining so much as it just manages to hold your attention, if that makes sense. The kind of movie you probably won't regret watching if you do so, but if you never saw it you're not really missing much, either. Definitely not a movie anyone is watching on repeat a bunch of times. I'd say it's not quite as good as A Walk Among the Momma Cozzi's, but it's way better than A Walk Among the DiGiornos.
7.5 out of 10
Remember when the microwave pizza was introduced, with that little metallic disc which seemed to ensure that the crust did not turn to rubber and introduced a little risk to the equation, as probably 1 in 1000 pizzas would end up starting a fire. We grew up eating Celeste pizzas, because it was my grandma's name (though she did not own the company).
Liam Neeson is becoming Jason Statham - every six months another movie comes out in which he is either an active or retired police/detective/secret agent type person and he is just trying to enjoy life when a bad guy gets in his way, and he shoots and beats up a lot of people.
I'm not saying this is a bad thing. Statham has a pretty solid track record and his acting has improved. Neeson started out with heavy drama and has mellowed out to serious action, but it is all good.
The Matthew Scudder is a brute, but an especially rich vein to mine. There are 18 Scudder novels written by one of the truest masters of the mystery / action / suspense genre, Lawrence Block. They're violent, particularly emotionally, but there's no reason not to do more of them.
Another of these books was made into a movie that should have been much, much better, Eight Million Ways To Die. The screenplay was by OLIVER STONE AND ROBERT TOWNE (Oscar winner for Chinatown), who worked under a pseudonym.
It was the last film directed by Hal Ashby, who did one of my all-time favorites, Harold and Maude, Being There, Coming Home, In The Heat of the Night (these last two won him Oscar nominations), plus a couple of nifty ones also written by Towne: The Last Detail and Shampoo.
AND it starred Jeff Bridges!!!
And it was kind of a misfire, for too many reasons to mention. On the plus side, the first lead role for Andy Garcia, who vanished much too quickly.
But I'd love to see Liam do more of these.
Although when I saw the commercial for it, I thought the name of it should be "Taken: For Hire."
That re-write of the movie is effin' hilarious and I would pay to a kickstarter to produce that as a College Humor type parody.
My parody of a Taken movie would have Liam hunting down the people stealing small office supplies.
"I know you took that pen home. People make honest mistakes. If it shows up here tomorrow, that will be the end of it. But if it DOESN'T show up.... I will find the supply cabinet, and I WILL replace it! Oh, and then,... I will hunt you down and kill you."
As far as Neeson, my wife's theory is that his late wife helped him choose his movies for classiness, and once she was gone, he started taking any crap script that came thru the slot, just to keep busy and take his mind off his grief.
Look, maybe three people in the entire history of the world will read this, and I doubt any of them will read the whole thing, but this is a pet peeve of mine, so ima let it fly....
[Mark Suszko] "As far as Neeson, my wife's theory is that his late wife helped him choose his movies for classiness, and once she was gone, he started taking any crap script that came thru the slot, just to keep busy and take his mind off his grief."
Wrong on so, so many counts. LOL
First, I think there's a difference between "mainstream action" and "crap." I will happily put movies like Taken alongside any mainstream action pictures you care to name. You have to get to maybe Bourne before you find better pictures than most of these.
But surely a comics nerd like yourself remembers Neeson's first major role, a Sam Raimi joint called Darkman (1989). It was a moderate hit, mind you, but let's just call it a cult film, even by Raimi standards.
Actually, I just looked it up -- Dead Pool was earlier (1988), but he had a small role in it. He played a music video director, with Jim Carrey (!!!) as a dissipated rock star with a horrible British accent (!!!), miming his supposed vocals on his supposed song, "Welcome To The Jungle." (Guns'n'Roses has a cameo in the film, including an accidental misfire of a harpoon by Slash.)
Remarkably enough, Guns, Carrey and Neeson were all virtual unknowns at this point...but goodness, this thing was terrible. Not as good as ANY Neeson pic...and he is, coincidentally just a couple of years older now than when Clint made Dead Pool, so Clint's age is no excuse.
Just after this (also 1988) was High Spirits, starring Daryl Hannah, Steve Guttenberg (woo-hoo!) and an unfortunate Peter O'Toole...who admitted that he did in fact take anything slipped through the slot. (Michael Caine, ditto.) Calling it correctly as an underrated late career O'Toole pleasantry, nobody could have looked at the script and imagined anything good would come of it.
Under Suspicion (1991) was a piece of dreck co-starring Laura San Giacomo (not long after Pretty Woman, where her role was much smaller of course). He's a detective using his wife (Laura) to stage fake adulteries to help wives divorce their husbands. A certain kind of nobility, I suppose, back when it was so nearly impossible for a woman to get a divorce...but dreck, nonetheless.
Shall I go on? Why yes, I shall.
I was a bookseller when Susan Isaac's Shining Through came out, and it was genuinely massive. HUGE. And a TERRIBLE movie starring Melanie Griffin, which was way, way different than the book. (In this case, a bad idea.) She's a spy against the Nazis (of COURSE she is), planted in Liam's household (of COURSE he's a Nazi) as a cook (but she can't cook! D'oh!), blah blah blah, Michael Douglas rescues her, trying to bluff his was past Nazi border guards as a MUTE (to explain why he won't speak German to them...because as an OSS spy, of COURSE he doesn't speak German)....good gravy, do NOT make me keep talking about this.
(Cast included Natasha's sister Joely, though.)
Wait, did somebody say CULT MOVIE? How about the Patrick Swayze classic Next of Kin? In which Liam plays a bloodthirsty hillbilly bent on revenge. Do I need to say more? I can. But I don't think I need to.
Leap of Faith, starring Steve Martin and Debra Winger? In which sheriff Liam finds himself falling in love with associate religious flim flammer Winger? Ditto. I shall say no more.
Lo and behold, Schindler's List, the very next year, 1993.
Following it with Nell (Jodie Foster, directed by Michael Apted) was a noble misfire for all concerned, but it's worse than you remember, I promise. But it included Natasha Richardson in the cast -- yaay!!! They'd actually worked together on Broadway the year before, but this was their first movie. They were married this year as well.
After that, Liam had a couple of prestige pieces (Michael Collins, Rob Roy -- hey wait, a run of period films....to go with, erm, Shining Through...) then Star Wars: The Silent Fart. He was just fine, maybe even an actual highlight in a trilogy largely bereft of them....not crap in theory, merely in practice, but hardly prestige on a scale of Schindler's List or some of these others.
Then The Haunting, directed by JAN DE BONT (look him up if you don't remember what a bad, bad sign this was), co-starring Catherine Z-J and Owen Wilson. Riiiight.
Gun-Shy - do you remember this at all? Co-starring Oliver Platt (who I absolutely adore)....and who's that billed third? Sandra Bullock? Never heard of her. Which may be why you never heard of this movie...followed by....
K-19: The Widowmaker. Should have been better: directed by Katherine Bigelow, co-starring Harrison Ford, but in no way was this expected to be anything more than the kind of action stuff he's been doing of late...which is in fact, far, far better.
There's a couple of good ones ahead (notably, Gangs of New York and Kinsey), but straight out of that into mainstream entertainments Batman and Narnia Chronicles...where of course playing a metaphorical THE ACTUAL GOD OF THE BIBLE AS A LION is pretty dang prestigious I suppose.
But wait...what's that I see right after the first Chronicles movie? TAKEN, released in 2008, when our beloved Natasha Richardson was blessedly very much with us.
In fact, as noted earlier, his run of movies since then has, yes, trended toward the muscular, but also tending toward the consistently entertaining. He was a lot of fun in The A-Team (which totally deserves a sequel), there's nobody doing better voice work right now. Not even Morgan Freeman.
With the action stuff, he's almost created his own genre, and he's consistently sticking the landing. Carry on, sir, carry on....
....and the rest of you take notice. He's done enough prestige pieces that they can't be called outliers, but those peaks are so high that it's easy to forget that they by no means represent most of his career....and even his mainstream, non-prestige stuff is top notch. Most actors would kill for this range of experiences, and few of them could deliver at such a high level across so many of them.
While Natasha's career was a bit more classically oriented, leave us not forget that her big movies were the (TERRIFIC) The Parent Trap and (NOT terrific) Maid In Manhattan.
Whew! I feel much better now, even knowing I'm likely the only one who will ever read these words. LOL
Tim - I read it, and agree with it.
I saw Darkman in the theater and really liked it at the time.
I probably saw some of the lesser known early 90's movies you mention.
I saw Schindler's List with my grandfather in Boca Raton, FL, in a theater filled with elderly locals, some of whom probably survived the Holocaust. It was an emotional experience to say the least.
I liked The Parent Trap ESPECIALLY Lyndsey Lohan's dual performance which was just as good as Hayley Mills, without the singing. Too bad about Lyndsey.
I agree that the current batch of action flicks is almost a Neeson-only sub-genre. There are few actors who can pull off the retired cop / father of teenagers role and still kick butt and be convincing. There are plenty of B-Actors who do this on a weekly basis but are not Neeson caliber. These are roles that Harrison Ford used to get, and Clooney or Pitt could get if they were interested in action movies, but they are not (World War Z was, I guess an action movie, though it could have been better).
Then Liam surprises us with the A-Team, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Ted 2, and Narnia. We were all surprised about Phantom Menace. This was like putting David Tennant in the first series of Doctor Who reboot to lend it some gravitas. Neeson's role in Phantom was akin to Alec Guiness, or Brando in Superman - and supposedly Neeson hounded Lucas to put him in the movie. Neeson worked for Spielberg so he had a direct connection to Lucas. Too bad he was surrounded by such silliness and had a lot of dialogue scenes with a tennis ball on a broomstick.
However Qui-Gon makes a ghostly appearance in the final episodes of the Clone Wars, setting up the Empire Strikes Back nicely, and this arc sort of redeemed some of Phantom's menace.
"Taken" was brilliant.
He can stop remaking it for the nth time in a row now.