Matt Scudder is an ex-NYPD cop who now works as an unlicensed private investigator operating just outside the law. When Scudder reluctantly agrees to help a heroin trafficker hunt down the men who kidnapped and then brutally murdered his wife, the PI learns that this is not the first time these men have committed this sort of twisted crime nor will it be the last. Blurring the lines between right and wrong, Scudder races to track the deviants through the backstreets of New York City before they kill again.
Rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity.
Written on the plot details of the same novel by Lawrence Block, this tenth novel of Matthew Scudder (portrayed by Liam Neeson
, one of Larry Block’s ideal Scudders) semi-delivers to this reviewer. Matt Scudder, the recovering alcoholic and unlicensed private investigator, doesn’t transcend its genre cliches, but Neeson
does give this character one of the most compelling performances on screen. The script, written and directed by Scott Frank, is very dark and gritty — artistically one of the better writers for crime fiction writing — about New York City.
We first start back in 1991, showing a bearded Scudder arguing with his partner in a car, then we’re in a Washington Heights bar where the barman greets Scudder and sets out two shots and a coffee. After downing the first shot, then sipping the hot coffee, he downs the second when a pair of armed men threaten then kill the barman. The action begins with Scudder killing the first man, then chasing the second and killing him in a concrete stairwell. This semmingly heroic act, of which he was eventually commended for, turned tragic when one of the stray shots fired finds its target through the eye of a little girl, cradled in her mother’s arms as she wails in grief over her daughter’s death. This was the moment Scudder realizes he had to give up drinking completely and enters Alcoholics Anonymous.
We flash forward eight years later and Y2K is the rage. No longer with the NYPD, he crosses paths with Peter Kristo who approaches Scudder after an AA meeting. Peter Kristo is portrayed by Boyd Holbrook (first seen in Milk, the 2008 American biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, as Denton Smith). Not your atypical junkie but a seemingly nice, intelligent scraggly young man who served in Desert Storm who fell on hard times and trying to make use of his artistic talent, he cons Scudder into seeing his brother, Kenny (Dan Stevens, best known for his role as Matthew Crawley in the British TV series Downton Abbey).
Scudder is told a story about how Kenny wants his wife’s (Carrie – played briefly and acted well by Razane Jammal) killers found after spending $400,000 to get her back since she was kidnapped by two men in a disguised van. But what Scudder deduces is that he’s a drug dealer since Kenny never called the police for help or the FBI (Scudder asks this) — then is corrected by saying he’s only a “trafficker” — does he refuse a large sum of money, his “gift” that he requests of his “clients,” but he declines to get involved with a drug trafficker.
The on-screen chemistry between Peter and Scudder starts out a little playful but natural and I find that both characters complement each other. Peter, the almost constant chain smoker to Scudder’s sobriety, helps Peter to realize his own problems and join A.A. a little bit later in the film. But there is also an element of sadness in him as he recounts how much Carrie meant to him as we see Scudder find out that Peter’s muse in many artistic representations was Kenny’s wife.
One of the most fascinating aspects of how Scudder changes his mind later is that he is told in graphic detail what happened to Carrie Kristo. It’s a brutal, disgusting account and he decides to do some independent research at a library. After having a little trouble with the microfilm reader and discovering two other similar murders, we’re introduced to a black teenager T.J. (portrayed by Brian “Astro” Bradley, a singer of X-Factor fame and actor of such shows as Person Of Interest, Red Band Society, and the film Earth To Echo), an abandoned kid who is tech savvy with computers and the Internet, is also interested in being a detective.
Scudder, intrigued by the boy, allows him to teach about the Internet and search engines. Although averse to change in the books, it was apparent that Scudder needed more help than just library microfilm. Later on we discover the boy has sickle cell anemia which sets up a really nice gift scene while T.J. is in the hospital, recovering from a beating by two other guys after a gun T.J. took to “protect” himself. There is also a very real moment shared between Scudder and T.J. when he was schooling T.J. how to load, take apart, and put together the weapon. Scudder also gets his first cell phone which becomes vital in a particular scene building up the tension near the end.
With T.J.’s help he comes to a useful suspect. Scudder’s contact with a Greenwood cemetery groundskeeper James Loogan (Olafur Olafsson, an Edda Award-winning Icelandic-American actor, producer, and screenwriter), with a little prying in a locked room on top of his mom’s building, helps to break the case wide open with the admission of being a wheelman in one of the kidnappings before stepping off the building’s edge to his own death. Scudder is able to discover the two victims prior to Carrie Kristo’s murder, Marie Gotteskind (Marielle Heller, actress in The Diary of a Teenage Girl and MacGruber) and Leila Alvarez (Laura Birn, a Finnish film actress most famous for her appearances in the 2003 film Helmi ja sikoja alongside Mikko Leppilampi and most notably in her role in the 2005 film Lupaus). From this point on, Scudder relies on his wits, instincts, and T.J. to get to the truth of the murders and identify former DEA agent killers the talkative Ray (David Harbour, Tony Award-winning best featured actor for the 2005 play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolff?) and the relatively quiet Albert (Adam David Thompson, actor and producer).
When researching the other victims, first Gotteskind and after that, Alvarez, Scudder starts with Gotteskind, and from there is able to use his instincts as well as other witnesses to resolve the answers his own investigation draws. Because of the three victims first, Gotteskind, second Alvarez, and the third, Kristo, the first and last have similar names: Marie and Carrie, respectively. However, once the order of deaths is sorted out, it becomes easier to follow the trajectory of the scene sequences in the movie. Scudder realizes the DEA connection through Loogan as we’re treated almost halfway through the movie where he is questioned by federal agents concerning his dialogue with known drug dealers and other like individuals.
It was through Gotteskind that we learn Peter was arrested by her and the files on him, Kenny, and another drug supplier, Yuri (Sebastian Roché, a French-Scottish actor known for his roles as Kurt Mendel on Odyssey 5, Jerry Jacks on the soap opera General Hospital and Thomas Jerome Newton on FOX TV’s Fringe), were being used by the killers who worked in the DEA. The killer’s targets then set their sights on Yuri’s teenage daughter, Lucia (acting newcomer Danielle Rose Russell). Scudder decides to turn the tables once he becomes aware of Kenny Kristo’s connection to Yuri and get the girl back his way.
While I feel the film lags in the first half due to character development and artistic license, I was put off by a plot hole from the year 1991 up to 1999 in a cut that should have been filled somehow. Apart from this, I appreciated the use of the 12 Steps as a dramatic motif during the last half but the picture is engaging and intense throughout. I was a little thrown off by a little humor near the middle of the movie and I think it was needed because of the moodiness and intensity of the entire film.
Writer/director Scott Frank has crafted a strong and compellingly artistic and gritty adult-skewing thriller, one that gives Liam Neeson a genuinely interesting character to play with. Lawrence Block himself, the creator of Matthew Scudder, loved how this film treatment was handled. I would love to see more and also read the books. You should read the books, too, to get an even more in-depth insight into the character.
Cameron Farmer is a freelance writer based in California with a shared interest in several topics other than film which you can learn more about via his Facebook fan page over at Kingspirit Entertainment. Feel free to subscribe to his page and follow him on Twitter @CameronFarmer8.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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