Saturday, July 11, 2015

Neeson is Not Our Scudder

Matthew Scudder, the private-eye protagonist of Lawrence Block’s series of mystery novels, is the alcoholic detective of the movie A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, based on Block’s book of the same name. Alcoholic? Come to think of it, maybe Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade were too, although they never identified themselves as such, the way Scudder does. Maybe a lot of mystery writers are alcoholics, for that matter. You could call Hemingway an alcoholic (and a misogynist, but let’s not pile on), and he created the Nick Adams stories, and Nick Adams was another hardened, hard-drinking and disillusioned knight in tarnished armor, like a lot of private investigators are.

One of the things a hard-boiled detective story has to do is come up with a detective that is wounded, but in some novel way. Scudder is scarred by the loss of his wife, and the alcohol. Or not by the booze per se, but by how he screwed up his life and those of those close to him with his drinking. And so he must find a new way to deal with the darkness that surrounds him without going to a bar to make it go away. And like all good anti-heroes he insists on a moral code in a universe that seems to be completely unconcerned with any kind morality.

Maybe it is a sign of the times, to have a detective that struggles with an addiction, or some other problem that comes from within. And unlike when Chandler and Hammett wrote of Marlowe and Spade, the ability to consume large quantities of alcohol is no longer considered a sign of machismo. Nowadays, tough guys get help. Still, they sometimes get to kick some ass, too.

Some of the current, or at least relatively recent, private eyes have some other interesting pathologies. Mark Haddon gives us an autistic teenager as sleuth in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, and Jonathan Lethem gives us an orphaned, tic-ing and Tourette-ic one in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. On TV, we have “Monk” (OCD), “Ironside” (wheelchair) and probably the weirdest, and most chilling, “Dexter,” who is a serial killer who tracks down other serial killers and kills them.

I don’t think detective mystery writers keep imitating the formula of the flawed and hurting hero just because the two archetypes of the private eye story mentioned above were such. The flawed hero has been around for a lot longer than since the 1930s and 1940s—Achilles suffered from overweening rage and pride (and that unfortunate heel) and Odysseus was a little long on self-regard himself. As was Lucifer in PARADISE LOST. Love for a woman, the femme fatale (Cleopatra, Delilah, even Eve, in a way) is another common problem for the heroic and their existentially disappointed anti-heroic descendants.

Detective story writers have to stick to some of the conventions of the genre, but come up with some interesting variations too. In the book, Scudder has a high class prostitute for a girlfriend (but not in this movie), but she is anything but a femme fatale. In fact, as a fallen woman, she is the least compromised character Scudder encounters in his dark journeys through the rotten (Big) apple. She is a worthy companion for Scudder, and at times is the only thing standing between him and the bottle and the oblivion lurking behind it. In both book and movie, Scudder has a sometime side-kick, a teenaged kid with sickle cell anemia, a computer savant who lives on the streets, named Dante.

The kid is one of the best parts of the movie, a homeless kid who refuses to give in to his illness, or to allow anyone to pity him, who is an avowed vegetarian devoted to drinking a gallon of water a day, and who asks a waitress why she assumes he wants a soda just because he is a poor black kid. The kid is the one connection Scudder seems to have with the rest of mankind, and the two form a motley and misanthropic duo which nevertheless manages to invoke sympathy in the watcher. In good hard-boiled fashion, they take turns pulling each other out of the fire, without acknowledging either a debt or a sense of gratitude to one another. In what is perhaps the best scene of the movie, Scudder convinces the kid in a few tough sentences that carrying a gun around is the best way to get himself killed. Putting together that many words seems hard for the laconic Neeson/Scudder, but he does it because he can’t help but care for the kid.

The story in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is not great, but then again, who can even figure out the plots in THE BIG SLEEP or THE LONG GOODBYE or THE MALTESE FALCON, much less miss the plot holes in them?

Early on, we learn that Scudder has a history with the sauce. He is approached by a young fellow from an AA meeting he attended whose brother’s wife has been kidnapped, tortured and killed by a couple of psychopaths. The brother is a drug dealer. The two psychos are floridly sadistic and unglued, which you might expect. Liam Neeson as Scudder goes wandering the city putting together the story on the dastardly duo, which has gone on to kidnap another young girl whom they plan on murdering after they collect a ransom on her. Pretty standard stuff, and without Block’s usual dark humor and Scudder’s acerbic wit.

Neeson is a somewhat menacing presence, but he doesn’t come across as particularly conflicted or guilty about anything, much less tortured. There are only a few scenes about AA, and these are pro forma. On the other hand, he doesn’t beat up an enormous number of guys in spectacular fashion like he does in those TAKEN action flicks, either. It’s kind of a tepid movie as a result.

There are other detective story staples too—there are a lot of night-time scenes, and the daytime ones are of a blighted city landscape, for one. And when Scudder meets and fights the killers in a cemetery there is a voice-over of the ten steps, which is particularly weird and ineffective (as is a scene where, in a departure from the dark, piano-bar kind of instrumentals we get through most of the movie, the killers sit in a truck salivating over a pre-teen aged girl walking her dog, to the tune of Donovan’s “Atlantis”). When one of the psychopaths gets the drop on Scudder, Scudder manages to kill him anyway, while the voice over talks about turning yourself over to a higher power. I am still wondering what the hell that was all about.

Anyway, from there it is pretty de rigueur. Gun battles, a cat and mouse chase, the young associate Dante in danger but managing to show pluck and ingenuity and to help save the day. The homicidal maniacs turn on each other (I guess the old lesson here is there is no honor among thieves, or between sexually sadistic serial killers either) and one offs the other before Scudder catches the survivor. Then, Scudder lets the drug dealer whose wife gets killed early on decide what to do with the remaining killer, leaving him alone with the brute to confront the humanity, or lack thereof, of the both of them. Is revenge justice? Yawn. I don’t know, and the scene was a cliché anyway. I would have preferred something weirdly and darkly funny to happen, but the movie was as serious as a heart attack.

Pretty standard stuff to that point. And then, of course, there is one more expected scene that is supposed to be unexpected. Why can’t anyone tie an effective knot in these movies? The last killer gets away. Temporarily, but he kills the drug dealer (I guess you can’t let a drug dealer live happily ever after, or even just live). Scudder and the savage then have the inevitable fight to the death. Ho hum.

The whole thing left me pretty unmoved. Even Scudder’s guilty past is pretty unimpressive. The guilty act that drives him to reform is a mistake he could have easily been made sober. There is no real moral ambiguity here. Scudder is a force for good, and it seems like Gotham is going to live happily ever after. To make sure we know this, the final scene is of Dante lying on Scudder’s couch as the sun rises in a beautiful, pink sky (over a nevertheless still crummy, scummy city).

Ham-handed, predictable. Neeson is the usual Neeson, which is to say not the Scudder I know from the Block books. That Scudder sometimes barely scrapes through a day sober, and lives in a much more morally ambiguous universe. And he is more of a wise guy, and a guy who is wise, than he is a tough guy. Tough is how Neeson plays him (and how Neeson has played everyone he has ever played) The movie would have made a pretty good movie of the week, maybe a scene from your usual detective TV show, but as a big screen production it was mediocre.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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