At one point in the new crime thriller "A Walk Among the Tombstones," someone asks Liam Neeson's private eye what it takes to be a good detective. "Patience. Instinct. Blind luck, mostly," he replies. These same qualities could be said to apply to writer-director Scott Frank trying to get a foothold in the marketplace with a crime thriller aimed at an adult audience.
At the outset of "A Walk Among the Tombstones," audiences are likely to be rooting for Frank, long one of Hollywood's cleverest screenwriters ("Dead Again," the Elmore Leonard adaptations "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight") and lately one of its most promising writer-directors ("The Lookout"). Frank swiftly establishes a throwback tone redolent of finely crafted '70s/'80s cinema (something in the vein of Sidney Lumet): patient, thoughtfully photographed and edited, well-acted and with a certain essential intelligence applied to the material -- and assumed of the audience.
That material derives from Lawrence Block's series of detective novels about unlicensed private investigator, ex-cop and recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder, who does everything in reaction to his still-unforgiven original sin. Here played with weary resignation by Liam Neeson, Scudder makes a reasonably compelling protagonist, expending old-fashioned shoe leather as he tracks down witnesses and clues in the case of the kidnapped and murdered wife of a drug kingpin (Dan Stevens, late of "Downton Abbey").
Scudder made it to the screen once before, portrayed by Jeff Bridges in the poorly received Hal Ashby film "8 Million Ways to Die," but Frank's take proves considerably more faithful to Block -- overhauled climax aside -- by retaining Scudder's 1990s New York City setting and putting a strong emphasis on the cultural context and 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. What's best about "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is atmospheric: the moody, evocative cinematography and the haunted performances by Neeson, Stevens, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as a person of interest, and David Harbour and Adam David Thompson as the killers. What's worst about the film is its sense of generic luridness (though Frank is careful and wise not to glorify violence). And what's in between is the film's inability to create much in the way of thematic red meat, aside from the pre-9/11 NYC setting being used for ho-hum portentousness: On the eve of Y2K, the evildoers reflect, "People are afraid of all the wrong things…"
"A Walk Among the Tombstones" conjures memories of more distinctive urban crime dramas of recent years, whether more operatic ("Mystic River," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") or more relatable ("Prisoners"), but peel away the stylishness of the filmmakers, and the film skews closest to the trio of dully trashy "Alex Cross" adaptations ("Kiss the Girls," "Along Came a Spider," "Alex Cross"). If only there were more to grab onto from the diffuse story, which -- with its nearly unredeemed brutality -- will make more sensitive viewers wonder why they bothered to subject themselves to the feel-bad film of the summer's dog days.
Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity. One hour, 53 minutes.