A Walk Among the Tombstones
Lawrence Block is one of my very favorite authors. He is very prolific, and has several ongoing series, all of them good. The best of the bunch are the stories about Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic New York ex-cop who makes ends meet by “doing favors” for people, things a private detective might do, but off the books, because he doesn’t have or want a P.I. license. The reason he left the force is that one night when he was drinking his supper in a local bar, two lowlifes came in and robbed the place, killing the bartender. He ran out into the street and got into a gunfight with them, killing them … but one of his bullets took a bad bounce and killed a little girl. It was a totally “righteous shoot” as the cops say, but he can’t live with it. After that he began his really serious drinking. A Walk Among the Tombstones is the tenth novel of seventeen so far.
When I heard this was to be made into a movie I had my usual reactions: a great deal of interest, and a great deal of worry. That fact is that most of the time movies made from good books with good characters fuck it up in one way or another. But every once in a while …
When I heard that Liam Neeson was going to play Scudder, my hopes went up. Not at first—he’s Irish!—but he’s been damn good at playing Americans in the past, and damn good in action movies. In fact, the movie probably got the green light when he signed on, he’s that much in demand. I see that ten years ago Harrison Ford was attached, but that fell through. Good. I love Harrison, but Liam would be better in this part. He has that world-weary face. Then I heard that Liam had always been on Larry Block’s short list of guys he would like to see playing Scudder. So I went into the theater with a lot of hope. What I’ll do is review it on two levels. One for people who know Matt Scudder and have read the book, and another for those who go into the theater cold.
Cold: I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s well-told, doesn’t go in for too much mindless violence. No car chases. No outrageous stunts. If you want that sort of stuff, this isn’t for you. Liam Neeson is good again as our favorite senior citizen action hero. All in all, it’s a good story.
Read the book: It’s still pretty good. There have been changes made to the story, but that’s inevitable. If they went through all the investigative procedure Matt does in the book you’d have a six-hour movie. So short cuts were employed, and I had no problem with any of them. There was one change I even approved of, which is the introduction of a new character that leads to a visually surprising scene.
There is a character named TJ, a street-smart black kid. Matt already knew him in the book; here, he meets him in a library. They’ve changed him some, and not for the better. He is also more involved in the action in ways I didn’t like. An irony: In the book he thinks about and tells Matt about several stupidly dangerous things he might have done if this was a movie. Here in the movie, he does them all. That’s the movie biz for you.
The worst change, as I was pretty sure would happen, comes at the end. The book must have felt too non-violent. This is a kidnapping story, and from the point the money is exchanged for the victim, it goes off the rails a bit. In the book the exchange was made peacefully. Here, we get a blazing shoot-out in a cemetery. In the book the kidnappers are taken alive, and boy, do they regret it. What is done to them is too raw (even though it’s not shown) for a movie, and might have been mistaken for a splatter pic. Matt and the family of the kidnap victim are no turn-the-other-cheek kind of people. And, no surprise at all, the finale involves lots of fistfighting and dead guys suddenly coming back to life. Well, you know how it is, you can hardly get the green light for a movie these days without that final mano-a-mano confrontation.
Overall, it’s about as good as I could have expected, and a lot better than the other recent attempt to make one of my favorite book characters into a movie franchise, the hugely disappointing Jack Reacher. In this one, at least they got the character right.