A Stroll Among the Gravestones

A man sits in the passenger seat of a car. He argues with the man in the driver’s seat, then gets out and walks into a bar. He goes in and sits down in a booth facing away from the door. When he sits down we see his badge and realize he’s a cop. He’s clearly a regular, since he doesn’t say a word to the bartender and he doesn’t need to: the bartender brings him a cup of coffee and two shots of whiskey.

Three men enter the bar. They are unwelcome, and the bartender tells them to get lost. They respond by blowing him away with a shotgun. The cop sitting in the booth pulls his gun and shoots at the men. They return fire and flee out the front door of the bar. The cop pursues them, and they exchange gunfire in the street. The men try to drive away, the cop shoots the driver and his blood sprays over the windshield.

The remaining two try to escape on foot, the cop kills one of them and shoots the third in the leg. The movie’s opening credits begin: we see a woman, filmed in close-up. We get the sense that we could be seeing something intimate. And we are, but not in the way you might expect. We see the woman’s eyes, which are wide and clearly terrified. A tear runs down her cheek. Her mouth is duct taped.

Such is the beginning of A Walk Among the Tombstones, one of Liam Neeson’s latest films. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a New York City cop who, eight years after the shootout shown in the movie’s opening sequence, has retired from the police department and now works as an unlicensed private detective. He’s been sober ever since that day in the bar, and regularly attends AA meetings.

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He’s sitting in a diner when a man from one of his AA groups approaches him. The man identifies himself as Peter Kristo, and tells Scudder that his brother Kenny would like a word with him. Scudder reluctantly accepts. He goes with Peter to Kenny’s house, and deduces from the opulence of Kenny’s house that he’s a drug trafficker. Kenny tells Scudder that his wife has been kidnapped. Scudder tells him to call the police, Kenny replies that he already paid the kidnappers four hundred thousand dollars, but they killed his wife anyway.

Scudder doesn’t want to get involved. But when he gets back to his apartment, Kenny is there. He tells Scudder what the kidnappers did to his wife, which is unspeakable. Despite his reservations, Scudder agrees to find the men.

Needless to say (but I’m going to say it anyway), A Walk Among the Tombstones is one of Liam Neeson’s darkest films. It pulls no punches. The movie is based on a novel by Lawrence Block, and is one of a series of novels featuring Matt Scudder. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how closely the movie does or does not follow the book.

It’s a movie that tells a fairly simple story: evil men are kidnapping the wives of drug traffickers and doing unspeakable things to them. We see glimpses of the men, but the first couple of times we see them their faces are partially offscreen, or hidden in shadow. It isn’t until the movie is almost halfway over that we see them in the light, and they are just a couple of guys. Just a couple of normal guys eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. Two guys named Ray and Albert. If you passed them on the street, you wouldn’t think twice about them. You’d never guess what evil was lurking under the surface.

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And that’s what compelling to me about this kind of story: it’s completely plausible. this is the kind of thing that could be happening right under your very nose, and chances are you would never realize it.

Some of Liam Neeson’s recent action films are a bit implausible, I’ll admit. They’re fun, but they can be pretty far-fetched. As much as I enjoyed Non-Stop, I’ll freely admit that the plot is a bit of a stretch.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is the opposite. It’s not fun and it is very plausible. There are scenes in this film that are deeply disturbing and very hard to watch. But the film’s director, Scott Frank, wisely doesn’t the let the film go too far. He pulls back just short of showing the worst details of what Ray and Albert do to their victims, but he shows enough to get the point across, and what we do see is chilling.

It’s a tricky balancing act, but Frank pulls it off pretty well. This is a film that could easily have gone too far and turned into exploitation, and it does toe the line a couple times, but fortunately Frank is smart enough to realize that he doesn’t need to get too graphic, and what is left to the imagination is always worse than anything he could actually show. Still, there’s more than enough here to earn the movie its R-rating. The violence is brutal and disturbing, but fortunately for the viewer it stops just short of being gratuitous.

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The movie wears its influences on its sleeve (Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are name-dropped several times), but it manages to avoid most of the clichés associated with the hard-boiled private detective genre. The whole recovering-alcoholic trope is a bit played out, but it didn’t bother me, since it’s important to Scudder’s character and there’s a compelling reason why he stopped drinking, which we don’t find out until later in the film (Spoiler alert: during the opening shootout, one of Scudder’s shots took a bad bounce and killed a young girl who was out with her mother).

The acting in the film is solid across the board: Liam Neeson is great as always, giving a compelling performance as a guy who knows he’s done bad things in his life, and is doing his best to live with himself. Kenny Kristo is played by Dan Stevens, our old friend from The Guest. While in that film he was lean and muscular, in this one he appears downright gaunt (and with good reason, the ever-useful trivia section for the movie on IMDb tells me Stevens lost 30 pounds for the role).

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And once again his American accent is convincing enough that you’d never know he’s actually a Brit (Why is it that British actors can do great American accents while most American actors can’t do a convincing British accent to save their lives? There are probably lots of people who don’t realize that Christian Bale, for example, is from Wales).

A Walk Among the Tombstones is not an easy watch, and it’s certainly not very uplifting. But it’ll stay with you, and maybe even make you think about the nature of evil in the world. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people, but I’m glad this movie was made. It allows for the possibility of redemption, maybe not for Ray and Albert but certainly for Scudder. It’s a well-made and well-acted modern noir that, while not without its flaws, is still very compelling in painting a picture of the darkness that exists just below the surface.

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Vlad and the Impalers

By most accounts, Vlad the Impaler was not a nice guy. He’s actually revered as a folk hero in Romania and other parts of Europe, even if his reputation in the rest of the world is not so hot.

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Despite his rather awesome appearance, you don’t get to be the inspiration for the most famous vampire in history for no reason (Vlad’s victims are said to number in the tens of thousands). The infamous Count Dracula has appeared in all forms of media since his first appearance in Bram Stoker’s novel in 1897, and it is one of his most recent appearances that I am going to talk about today.

Last year Dracula got his very own cinematic origin story with a little movie called Dracula Untold. Response to the film was largely “Meh,” but I saw it recently and was very pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking it.

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The movie stars Luke Evans as Vlad, and tries to portray him as a pretty good guy who has admittedly done some horrible things, and is trying to leave his dark past behind him and move on with his life. The movie gives us some brief glimpses of impalement, which aren’t particularly graphic given the film’s PG-13 rating, but are still enough to get the point across (see what I did there?).

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The movie opens with Vlad and some of his pals stumbling across a vampire in a cave. Don’t you hate it when that happens? His friends are killed but Vlad escapes and makes it back to his wife Mirena and son Ingeras.

Vlad tries not to think too hard about the whole “vampire-in-a-cave” thing, but gets distracted when the Ottoman sultan Mehmed sends a messenger the next day. The messenger tells Vlad that the sultan requires 1,000 boys to be trained in his army. This is unwelcome news, so Vlad goes to Mehmed to attempt to negotiate. He offers himself instead, but Mehmed refuses and demands Vlad’s own son as well, just to add insult to injury I guess.

On the day Vlad is supposed to give his son to Mehmed’s emissaries, Vlad changes his mind and kills the emissaries. Vlad knows this will mean war, and also knows that his army is no match for Mehmed’s, so in desperation he goes to seek the Cave Vampire’s help, in order to gain the power of the vampire to defeat his enemies.

The Cave Vampire (listed in the credits as Master Vampire, which would be a good name for a rock band) is played by Charles Dance of all people, a veteran actor best known these days for playing the (recently deceased) Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones.

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The red-eyed Master Vamp drains some of his blood into a skull and gives it to Vlad to drink. Doing so, he says, will give Vlad the strength of 100 men, the speed of a falling star, and dominion over the night and all its creatures. He also tells Vlad that if he can resist the urge to drink blood for three days, he will become human again. If not, he will be doomed to wander the earth as a vampire.

Vlad accepts, and drinks the blood.

From this point, everyone knows what is going to happen. I really don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Vlad does not resist the urge to drink blood, because if he did resist then there would be no Dracula and the point of an origin story would be moot.

So, yeah. Things ultimately don’t end up going well for our friend Vlad. Despite the story’s predictability, I still enjoyed the journey quite a bit, and there are some very cool scenes along the way.

One of Vlad’s vampiric powers is the ability to transform himself into a swarm of bats, which makes for some cool visuals. He also gains control over swarms of bats, which he uses to devastate Mehmed’s army in another very cool scene, and his strength enables him to singlehandedly slay 1,000 of Mehmed’s soldiers in a single night. The fight scenes are well choreographed and well integrated with the special effects, and the movie overall just looks really good.

The costumes and sets are also impressive, and I really liked seeing the different kinds of armor that the Ottoman soldiers wore, which looked great and give moviegoers something to look at that isn’t seen very often in Hollywood movies. I also quite liked Vlad’s badass dragon armor, which bears a slight resemblance to the armor worn by Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula.

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Luke Evans as Vlad is the movie’s greatest asset. He gives the character a real sense of gravitas, and I was surprised to find myself really rooting for the guy, despite being aware of the movie’s inevitable conclusion. He’s also convincing in the action scenes. The final fight between Vlad and Mehmed takes place in Mehmed’s tent, the floor of which he has covered with silver coins (since vampires don’t like silver, remember). It’s another well-choreographed fight scene that makes great use of a unique and memorable location, and is a satisfying conclusion to Vlad and Mehmed’s rivalry.

The movie does, however, have serious flaws. Apparently Vlad and Mehmed were raised together during the reign of Mehmed’s father, so there’s supposed to be some kind of brotherly-rivalry sort of thing going on, since they were once friends and are now enemies. But this aspect of their relationship is never really explored, and I was left wondering why Mehmed was such a douchebag. If they were friends while they were growing up, why does Mehmed seem to hate Vlad now? There’s no real explanation for this, aside from the obvious one that Mehmed is just another ruthless, power-hungry despot, which isn’t very satisfying from an emotional or dramatic perspective.

Mehmed is played by Dominic Cooper, who’s a really good actor but gets little screen time in Dracula Untold, and his underwritten character leaves the movie lacking a strong villain. This is really unfortunate, given that Cooper is a skilled actor and also that Vlad and his family are given pretty solid character development, so the lack of characterization for Mehmed really stands out.

Also distracting is the fact that most of the actors don’t really sound Romanian, the majority of them just sound English, which is slightly off-putting. And the movie is only 93 minutes long, so there’s definitely more that could have been done with the story. Still, the advantage of the short running time is that the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome, which helps.

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There are also quite a few plot clichés. Like I said earlier, anyone with half a brain already knows where the story will end up, more or less. This is partly because it’s an origin story, and anyone familiar with the title character will know how it goes for him, which robs the movie of some of its suspense.

Still, I found it to be an enjoyable way to spend 93 minutes. If you like these kinds of movies, check it out. I lowered my expectations quite a bit before I watched it, and ended up having a pretty good time, despite the movie’s considerable flaws. Sometimes lowered expectations can be a good thing. And the movie at its core is about a guy who sacrifices his humanity in order to save his family and his homeland, and that to me is still compelling, even if it’s in a slightly cheesy B-movie.

And hey, any movie that has Tywin Lannister as “Master Vampire” can’t be all bad, right?