Director and Screenplay: Scott Frank
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Sebastian Roché.
Running time: 113 minutes.
When a title sounds like a trap or terrible advice for an evening out you know it’s probably a gritty, noir thriller due a film release. This book of Lawrence Block’s from 1992 has been on the slate for a film production for many years, with Harrison Ford originally in mind for the lead role of ex-cop Matthew Scudder. Scott Frank finds himself directing his own screenplay of the story with this generation’s elderly warrior Liam Neeson, as Scudder.
Mr Neeson is the go to guy these days as the highly skilled, grizzly almost-pensioner of the silver screen and i am a fan of his, if maybe not of all his recent films. This movie boasted to challenge him with a new role and I hoped this meant more than just having him search for someone else’s lost relatives instead of his own. His character Scudder is shown as an everyday and fashionably flawed cop saying what he wants and drinking like he’s the Pete Doherty of the police force. After a shoot out in the street that is pretty well filmed and shot (pun marginally intended) a wayward bullet of his “hops” to hit an innocent bystander. Scudder retires with full commendations and lives as an unlicensed private detective.
In the trailer I got or invented the impression that this caused him to help people who couldn’t go to the police so mainly criminals, but apparently this isn’t strictly the case as that would have been far too original and interesting. More fool me, desiring original entertainment and the such. In the film he actually claims to just help people in general in return for “gifts”, that’s still pretty interesting and therefore obviously, thoroughly unexplored. After one of his AA meetings a fellow attendee Peter Kristo (Holbrook) takes Scudder to meet his drug dealing brother Kenny (Stevens) who’s wife has been kidnapped and killed after he payed the ransom. Standard Neeson-esque hi jinks ensue.
This is usually the part where I go through the different aspects of the film and you pretend your vaguely interested in my opinion. The fact is though that just about everything in this film is fine. Just fine. Annoyingly so.
The music is generic and fits the bill without blowing you away or straying a atom from the formula, with one exception which I will mention soon. The cast are all solid and the script ranges from excellent to pretty awkward with the mad veering nature of letting your elderly relative try to play on GTA.
No one and nothing in the film is dreadful but it just lacks enough bite and edge to give you any emotional involvement or impact your worldly view. The titles are clever as they escalate into a sinister, mortifying scene and the moment the villains first see their child victim is an oddly shocking portrayal of how this moment strikes with glamorous slow motion and contrasting, upbeat music. It’s probably the creepiest moment by far and uncomfortable to watch. Seriously your hairs won’t just stand up on end, they will want to get up, walk out and see a nice film instead! This also sadly one of the very few impacting scenes or methods.
Neeson growls and prowls the concrete jungle accordingly but his performance is at best varied. Neeson is a favourite of mine and is playing a world weary character but sometimes his delivery seems weary to the point of bored and awkward. You can almost imagine it was the 100th take of that line or that they were forcing him to do the film as they held his loved ones captive off stage (potential plot for Taken 4 maybe?). Dan Stevens is good but shows little of the intensity we revelled in during the much less serious film The Guest. Brian Bradley is pretty great as TJ the homeless boy that befriends Scudder, giving comedy relief while tugging at his crusty heart strings and even harking back to the days of Sherlock Holmes and his urchin agents of the street.
The roles of the villains portrayed by Eric Nelsen and David Harbour are played by the numbers and feel a little skimped out on. They are menacing without being terrifying and when compared to others such as Kevin Spacey in Se7en it’s more TV acting and the bar is unraised.
There are relatively creepy scenes and some good banter as well as some neat editing such as when the sniper is referenced in the graveyard and cuts to him fumbling with the gun. Every base is covered and all expectations are satisfied. A clever scene at the door window with Scudder followed and the ominous decisions next to the pigeon coop. Sadly some of the impact may be lost from this starring the much exposed trailer. TJ repeatedly mocks Scudder with some nice touches and there’s a great idea of a woman from his AA group reading out the 12 steps as the action unfurls. They even mock the genre a little with a friendly jab about the necessity of a cool private eye name which is rightly pointed out as a need for any hope of success.
This being said the pacing is off and the story lurches through. Every random member of the public he questions are kind enough to have photographic memories and seem to remember exact details of everything they see. A lot of the plot also unravels as Scudder breaks into people’s house and randomly jabs them with accusations until they admit things. There isn’t much cohesion as the main set pieces don’t really fit together and have no weight such as him discovering TJ’s gun or the police threatening Scudder which all just falls a bit flat. It’s almost like someone has just skipped through the book and taken the best moments and lines then duct taped them together….oh, that’s exactly it Isn’t it. Silly me. By the end it feels more like crawling among the tombstones and mournfully passing the graves marked ‘Pacing’ and ‘Development’.
The ending is slightly convoluted and fumbled but not all cliché. It satisfies the story needs pretty neatly and safely, which actually sums up the entire nature of the film itself. There are no twists to speak of which is fine as evil for the sake of being evil can be terrifying in its simplicity. Unless that point is kind of almost entirely skipped over. I mean it’s probably easier if they’re just not affected at all by the pesky evil right? Right. Close call, they nearly accidentally created some atmosphere there!
This is a good story in what seem to be solid but unsure hands, the result ends up being a decent film and therefore a missed opportunity. The film does little wrong though it just suffers from the hype and even though it does compliment it’s own genre well enough it does little or nothing to extend it.
Verdict: A good film to watch a least once for crime enthusiasts but there are enough simple mistakes and corner cutting to dull the impact of a dark tale.