To the credit of screenwriter Richard Wenk and director Antoine Fuqua, they have found the right, refreshing angle for this feature film adaptation of the 1980s CBS series of the same name. Like that Edward Woodward starring vehicle, Washington plays Robert McCall, a man using the certain skills from his shady past doing the dirty work for a government agency to help the innocent, needy, and or helpless. But the angle here is one that, if I recall correctly, never was explicitly explored in the original TV show's four-year run: the superhero-esque origin story of how he was lulled out of a quiet, anonymous, unremarkable, but content post-service existence to become the righteous avenger who solicits his services for free via advertisement. In a move that may those seeking instant action gratification, Wenk and Fuqua take the nature of an origin story very seriously--that is, patiently setting up McCall's status quo working at a Home Depot-esque warehouse store and how his casual acquaintance with a teen prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz, effective in a smallish but pivotal role) prompts him back into action. But even once it reaches that point, the film does not suddenly become all about ass-kicking, with Wenk and Fuqua continuing to organically build the dramatic stakes as the shockwaves from McCall's actions reverberate through the Russian mob, who send a ruthless enforcer (Marton Csokas, spot-on) on the hunt.
That he takes his time to build dramatic momentum is a measure of the familiarity and faith Fuqua has in his star, who is the primary reason why the character and film remain so consistently compelling event without wall-to-wall action. There really isn't a whole lot to McCall on the page: shady past and requisite regret, strict moral code of justice, a nigh-invulnerable baddest of badasses when push comes to shove. And this is where having someone like Washington in the lead is invaluable, who not only has such commanding charisma but can convey so much in his stillness and the most subtle of choices. Training Day fans may bemoan the lack of a big, bellowing "King Kong ain't got nothin' on me!" display of histrionic firepower, but Washington's choice to very rarely ever raise his voice speaks volumes about the character, from his moral code to his self-awareness of the brutality within to how much conscious effort he has to exert to keep it under control--making those outbursts all the more brutal, frightening, and, honestly, satisfying.
And do Fuqua and Washington ever make the first two-thirds' carefully built foundation pay off when they finally let loose and blow the roof off with a terrifically tense, unusually extended climax. Fuqua knows to make this sequence more than just about the flying bullets and violent ass-and-all-other-parts kicking, for beyond the expected visceral thrills and bone-cracking and -smashing brutality, it is a wonderfully paced and suspenseful cat-and-many-mice standoff game between McCall and a large crew of bad guys, with that smartly established narrative groundwork and the innate gifts of the star lending gravitas and resonance to the explosive goings-on--and lending that much more satisfaction and excitement, most especially to see where Washington and Fuqua can take this in future installments.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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After many years of building a rep as a serious dramatic actor, it's ironic that Liam Neeson's return to more heady material would now be considered a departure, given his wildly popular reinvention in recent years as an action movie badass. But the screen version of Lawrence Block's novel makes it easy for his fan base to be drawn into darker, more deliberately paced depths, as screenwriter/director Scott Frank opens with Neeson's Matt Scudder going through a familiar scenario of chasing down perps who just killed a barkeep in cold blood. But the context of such a scenario is different from what one has come to be used to, with Neeson's character being drunk, thus leading to an outcome that leaves Scudder years later without a badge and doing private eye work when not attending AA meetings. It only gets grimmer from there, as he is hired by a wealthy drug dealer (Dan Stevens) to find those responsible for the abduction and gruesome murder of his wife--who, as it turns out, is but one of a series of victims of the same killers. Scudder's reluctant friendship with a teen (Brian "Astro" Bradley, whose growing and promising acting career will be the only notable product of the ill-fated U.S. version of The X Factor) who comes to help on his investigation adds some brief moments of levity to the proceedings, but in a way that never undercuts the overall seriousness of tone nor detracts from the creepy atmosphere, which Frank carefully crescendoes to suspenseful effect in the finale. The journey to the payoff may be too slow for some, but the pace is all the better to savor the finely etched performance of Neeson, who reminds that he can be just as captivating to watch creating a complex character as he is beating bad guys up.