Liam Neeson does have a “special set of skills” in “A Walk Among the Tombstones” but they’re not really on display in the movie. This isn’t “Taken 4: Armed and Fabulous,” it’s a character study with sadistic serial killers, a precocious kid and plot holes you could drive a truck through. Luckily it also has the jaded but still momentous presence of its star Neeson.
Neeson is Matthew Scudder, a recovering alcoholic who gave up his New York City detective’s badge and the bottle when he was involved in a wild street shoot out left two dead and one wounded. Eight years later he’s working as an unlicensed private investigator—“Sometimes I do favors for people,” he says, “and sometimes they give me gifts.”—when he takes a job to investigate the kidnapping and dismemberment of a drug dealer’s wife. As he gets closer to discovering the people behind the grisly crimes—with the help of T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a teenage street kid—the case gets gruesome as body parts and clues pile up.
Set against the backdrop of Y2K, “A Walk Among the Tombstones” does little to take advantage of anxious spirit of the times. Instead of playing up on that sense of unease, it is dismissed with the line, “People are afraid of the wrong things.” What’s left is an average police procedural about a world-weary ex-cop chasing down serial killers who do unspeakable things but little more.
The addition of a young character is more of a mystery than the kidnapping story. The grim tone of the rest of the film is lightened somewhat by former “X Factor” contestant Bradley’s performance, but why include him at all? To soften Neeson’s character? To make it family friendly? It accomplishes neither and in fact adds a dreaded “teen sidekick” flavor to a story that takes away from the grit of the serial killer storyline.
Neeson brings his usual action-man gravitas, but tempers it with a little humour and more old school police work than he does in the “Taken” movies. “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is the anti-“Taken.” It pulls its punches and would be better served by showing a little less restraint.
“Earth to Echo” is something new, a found footage film for kids, but also a throwback to the kind of 1980s sci-fi adventures made popular by Spielberg and his pal ET.
Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley), Munch (Reese C. Hartwig) and Alex (Teo Halm) are BFFs, inseparable preteens who are about to have their lives upended. Construction of a new highway is scheduled to flatten their Nevada neighborhood and we meet them on the eve of their last day together.
Before they can schedule their final sleepover, however, strange things start happening—their iPhones start “barfing up” weird images of maps on their screens. Perplexed, they set out on an adventure to see where these strange phone signals will lead them. Their journey takes them to the desert where they find some sort of space gizmo—not a robot but an injured life form from above—that resembles a cute intergalactic baby owl.
Lost and alone, the creature, named Echo for his habit of responding with mechanical beeps to the boy’s speech, needs the kid’s help to find his spaceship and get back home. With the help of Emma (Ella Wahlestedt), a resourceful classmate, they spend their last night helping Echo and trying to piece together the connection between the highway construction and the mysterious goings-on in their neighborhood.
I suppose the found footage gimmick is meant to add intensity to the story, or be a novel promotional tool for the movie, but in the execution, mostly just leaves the viewer feeling seasick. The gimmick doesn’t add much to the storytelling, except the standard found footage explanation of how and why they’re going to manage to document everything that’s going to happen that night. (In case you’re curious these children have spyglasses, camcorders and GoPro portable cameras.) Next time out I’d prefer a locked down camera on a tripod and less teaching for the Gravol.
Stylistic choices aside, “Earth to Echo” is amiable but not terribly exciting. It has a distinct direct-to-video vibe, despite at least one eye-popping sequence of a truck being dismantled and reassembled. Story wise it plays it safe, to the point of being bland, without any of the grit that made kid’s adventures like “Goonies” and ”Gremlins” so much fun.