Lawrence Block’s literary creation Matthew Scudder has been brought to the big screen before, by Jeff Bridges in 8 Million Ways to Die. Now the character has switched hands, falling in the lap of dependable action hero Liam Neeson. Though sadly, Scott Frank’s sophomore endeavour is likely to go in much the same way as the aforementioned production, following on from Hal Ashby as yet another filmmaker who has struggled to bring this character to life.
Scudder is a former cop and recovering alcoholic, who now works for himself. Though reluctant to take on any paid assignments, when he discovers the devastating tale of Kenny Kristo’s (Dan Stevens) wife, who was kidnapped and then savagely murdered, he feels a duty to lend a hand, and so sets off on a brutal path of vengeance to find the killers and bring them to justice. Though he would prefer to work alone, he is joined by the enthusiastic youngster TJ (Astro) to help put an end to this matter, and ensure the callous criminals can’t strike again.
As always with Neeson we have a protagonist we can believe in and abide by – as he has an air of authority about his demeanour, allowing you put your faith in him completely. However he fails to save the film from distinct mediocrity in a narrative which sets itself up so well (with a harrowing flashback of Kristo’s wife being taken), only for the pay-off to be widely underwhelming and frustratingly conventional. The inconsistent tone is a great source of vexation, as we move carelessly between being bleak and unforgiving, and then playful and jovial – and both sentiments are devalued significantly by the other. The antagonists of the piece epitomise this notion completely, as they should be fearful and sadistic, and yet they’re almost like pantomime villains; and you struggle to take them seriously at all, which cheapens the narrative accordingly.
As a genre somewhat consigned to a Hollywood of old, it’s a shame that film noir seems so difficult to get right in contemporary cinema. It takes the likes of Sin City, which subverted the style, to gain any such success, and which could be the case for a while longer, as sadly Frank has done little to inspire nor reinvent the genre on this particular outing.