The year is 1993. The big Oscar-season movies are Schindler’s List, which makes a grave Hibernian named Liam Neeson famous, and Philadelphia, in which Denzel Washington tacks another critical success onto a résumé that already includes such prestige movies as Malcolm X and Glory. Meanwhile, the biggest action stars of the 1980s, both in their mid 40s, release winking or self-parodic movies — The Last Action Hero for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Demolition Man for Sylvester Stallone — that suggest they know their time is running out.
Neither movie does that well at the box office, both Arnie and Sly look pretty creaky underneath all their bulk, and you wonder, naturally enough, what the future of action movies holds. Fortunately, you happen to have a Magic 8 Ball on hand, so you hold it up and ask: Who will be the biggest action stars 20 years from now?
The 8 Ball shakes, the answer floats to the surface: Well, Arnie and Sly will still be at it . . . but they’ll have ceded the title to those guys from the prestige movies: a 62-year-old Liam and a 59-year-old Denzel.
Strangely, very strangely, so it has come to pass. Washington has a hit this month with The Equalizer, an update of an ’80s vigilante TV show that’s the latest in a long list of post-2000 action flicks he’s headlined. Neeson, meanwhile, is out with yet another installment in his fist-swinging, heat-packing, wolf-pack-confronting oeuvre, playing the P.I. Matthew Scudder, from Lawrence Block’s crime novels, in A Walk among the Tombstones.
A Walk is a little less over the top, a little more restrained and arty, than some of the other recent Neeson vehicles. (Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s done a little worse at the box office.) As Scudder, Neeson uses his wits more than his brawn until the final set piece, and the movie as a whole has a lot more going on than, say, the Taken movies or this spring’s Non-Stop. There’s a sentimental thread, in which Scudder befriends a homeless, precocious black kid (Brian Bradley, stage name “Astro”) who wants to become the detective’s aide-de-camp; there are various plot complications and misdirections; there’s some showy, trying-too-hard stuff with the score and voice-overs (a recitation of AA’s twelve steps over third-act scenes of violence, for instance); and then there’s a lot of ’70s-style New York seediness (the film is set in the late ’90s, but the atmosphere is High Decay) that owes a strong debt to Paul Schrader and his various collaborators.
But still, Neeson’s craggy physicality, the air of mature, rueful death-dealing capability that he projects, is as central to this film as it is to his other action movies. He may not be young, may not be that quick, may not have rippling muscles or heavy weaponry — but when the bad guys come calling, he’s the guy you want to put in charge.
Here the bad guys — a pair of sickos, one garrulous and one reserved, played by David Harbour and Adam David Thompson — are really just the worse guys, since they get their twisted kicks by victimizing drug dealers, whose wives and girlfriends they kidnap, knowing the dealers have money and probably won’t call the cops. When the money is delivered, the sickos deliver in their turn — “returning” the women as dismembered, violated corpses.
When this horror happens to a dealer named Kenny (played by Downton Abbey’s golden boy, Dan Stevens, remaking himself as a burning-eyed ghost), he gets his junkie brother (a twitchy Boyd Holbrook) to put Scudder on the case. Scudder, naturally, has his own demons: He’s an alcoholic who retired from the force after the drinking led to some careless, tragic gunplay. But they aren’t the kind of issues that prevent him from getting his men, in basically the way that moviegoers have learned to expect from any story in which the forces of evil are foolish enough to trifle with the man who once was Oskar Schindler.
Why we like Neeson — or Washington — in these parts is a fascinating question. They’re well-preserved enough, of course, but they aren’t drinking from the fountain of youth; indeed, it’s the hint of weariness about their gun-pulling and punch-throwing that somehow makes the whole thing work. That weariness conveys gravitas, which conveys maturity, which conveys, well, manhood in a way that under-40 (or even under-50?) male stars can’t quite match. Male adolescence lasts a long time in our culture, and maybe it lasts even longer in Hollywood . . .
. . . or maybe our young male stars, with a few exceptions, just don’t get a real chance to grow up on-screen, because if they show promise and charisma and have an impressive physical presence, the first thing the studios do is sign them to a five-movie deal as one superhero or another, disappearing them into a costume at exactly the moment when they should be acquiring the gravitas that older masters such as Neeson and Washington casually exude.
Whether action movies are the best way to deploy that gravitas is, of course, another question — but I’ll take Matthew Scudder, P.I., over Aquaman anyway.