Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence Block’

After finding myself considerably more than pleased with writer/director Scott Frank’s 2014 adaptation of modern noir master Lawrence Block’s gritty PI drama A Walk Among The Tombstones, I decided, in spite (or maybe because?) of its 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, to track down the only other cinematic take on Block’s work (and, more specifically, on his legendary protagonist, former-cop-turned-unlicensed-gumshoe Matt Scudder), 1986’s 8 Million Ways To Die. As things turned out, I had to go the Blu-ray route with this one since it’s not available for streaming anywhere so far as I can tell, but hey, things could have been worse — the Kino Lorber Blu (and,I presume, DVD, although I didn’t actually check to see if it’s available in that format) is actually a semi-recent release, dating back to October of 2017, and if I’d been determined to track this flick down before that, I may have been forced to rely on, say, the kind of seedy underworld connections that Scudder himself has to depend on from time to time.

Speaking of Scudder, this earlier celluloid incarnation is brought to life by Jeff Bridges, who’s certainly rock solid in the title role, bobbing and weaving between every sort of psychological polarity possible as he takes on what first appears to be a fairly open-and-shut case of a prostitute named Sunny (played by Alexandra Paul) who wants to get out from under the clutches of her pimp, Chance (Randy Brooks), only to suddenly find himself in the midst of  a murder investigation when she turns up dead and he ends up saddled with a self-appointed “partner” in the form of another hooker, Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), whose reasons for putting herself in the middle of such an obviously dangerous situation are as complex and elusive as everything else about this feisty potential femme fatale. All signs point to Chance being the killer right out of the gate, of course, but Scudder is soon glad for the extra help he’s got when it turns out that the actual culprit might very well be coolly sociopathic drug boss Angel Maldonado, played with understated-but-no-doubt-thick menace by Andy Garcia.

Oh, and did I mention that Scudder is barely six months sober, and that the more stressful this case gets, the better the bottle starts looking to him?

Hal Ashby may seem an interesting choice to direct an ostensible hard-boiled thriller like this, given that he’s best known for cult-favorite comedies like Harold And Maude and Being There, but he captures the seedy L.A. underworld of the early-to-mid 1980s with a considerable amount of sleek style and “street-level”authenticity that, fair enough, isn’t gonna make anybody forget about To Live And Die In L.A., much less Vice Squad, anytime too soon, but will certainly do in a pinch — and he undoubtedly gets a series of terrific performances from each and every one of his principal players. This, then, is the point at which you are more or less obligated to wonder this film died at the box office so quickly, has such a lousy reputation (as well as that 0% RT score), and was even unavailable for home viewing, apart from its initial VHS release, until about nine months ago.

My theory? It’s all down to one serious mess of a screenplay.

Oliver Stone made the first pass at it and is, the film historians tell me, the guy responsible for transposing the action from its original printed-page setting of New York to the West Coast, but when his treatment failed to make the studio happy, R. Lance Hall was brought in for another go at things — only to find his version largely re-written by an uncredited Robert Towne. Ashby, however, fundamentally dissatisfied with even this third script, encouraged his actors to simply improvise when and where it suited both them and him, and as a result, we end up with a movie that has a very consistent look and feel that’s constantly undermined by its scattershot, near-pathologically inconsistent tone. A movie that knows what it wants to appear to be, but little to no idea of what it actually is.

In his introduction to the recent, and highly faithful, graphic novel adaptation of his book by writer/artist John K. Snyder III (which retains the original title of Eight Million Ways To Die — no numeric shorthand here! — and is well worth checking out), author Block makes his disdain for this film pretty clear (even while singling out Bridges and Garcia for deserved praise), and I can certainly see why he wouldn’t care too much for it but, unlike most critics, I can’t bring myself to see it as a total loss. The acting is too strong, and the directing too assured, for that. It’s not great, mind you, and maybe not even especially good, but it’s easy enough to see that there was something that probably could have been pretty special hidden underneath all those re-writes (official and otherwise) — and that seems to be the view taken by Bridges in the full-length commentary track included on the disc, as well as in the various on-camera interviews with Arquette, Paul, Garcia, and Block himself that, along with a stills gallery, round out Kino Lorber’s fairly comprehensive extras package.

All told, then, 8 Million Ways To Die is far from the unmitigated disaster that it is, largely, remembered as — to the extent that it’s remembered at all. It’s probably of interest only to the curious, granted, but if you number yourself among that crowd, what the hell — it’s worth at least a rental, although probably no more than that.

Sometimes. you’re just in the mood for a private eye flick — am I right?

I know that I certainly was the other night and so, after a bit of browsing, I decided to scratch the particular celluloid itch I was feeling by streaming writer-director Scott Frank’s 2014 cinematic adaptation of legendary hard-boiled crime fiction author Lawrence Block’s popular novel A Walk Among The Tombstones via our local cable service (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD should you choose to go that route), and whaddya know? What I found underneath the typically slick, borderline-“artsy” modern direction and cinematography, and decidedly lurid subject matter, was actually an old-school PI drama, anchored by some very strong performances, that would more than likely make the likes of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and even Humphrey Bogart proud.

That means it comes with one fairly big downside, though — for all attempted twists and turns it’s actually pretty predictable, but we’ll get to that in a bit more detail in fairly short order. First the good : bucking his post-Taken typecasting as a middle-aged “tough guy,” Liam Neeson reminds us all that that he’s actually a multi-faceted and cerebral actor in his lead turn as troubled former-cop-turned-unlicensed gumshoe Matt Scudder, a guy who is haunted by the memory of a little girl one of his stray bullets killed back when he was “on the job,” and is now (okay, fair enough, seemingly constantly) struggling to maintain his fragile newly-found sobriety. Not exactly looking for work, he’s nevertheless intrigued enough by an offer that comes his way when his old pal Howie (portrayed by Eric Nelsen), acting as a “go-between,” lets him know about a potentially-unsavory character who needs some strictly “off the books” assistance — and soon enough, Scudder is back in action after first refusing the gig, cajoled into the stereotypical “one last job” by smooth-talking (and ominous as all hell) drug dealer Kenny Kristo (brought to life with considerable aplomb by Dan Stevens, who’s a million miles away for his Downton Abbey role with this one), whose wife has been kidnapped by a couple of psycho thugs — who, it seems, may have gone ahead and killed her even after their ransom demands were met. In due course, Sudder’s investigations leads him to conclude they may also have done the same to several others, all of whom seem to track back to Kristo’s unsavory life and business in one way or another, and then — they strike again. While Scudder is on the case. And, of course, there’s no way he’s gonna let that stand.

Speaking of those kidnappers/potential killers, they’re a couple of seriously fucked-up dudes, and actors David Harbour (who plays Ray) and Adam David Thompson (who plays Albert) definitely both reek of psychotic menace. What they’re really up to, and why, is pretty well spelled out far in advance of being stated/shown explicitly (told you we’d get back to the predictability), but it almost doesn’t matter because it’s so fucking unsettling that it could easily be argued that knowing — or suspecting — what this deranged duo’s “game” is might just make things even worse.

There’s plenty of solid acting on display from the more “minor” players here, as well, with special accolades due Maurice Compte as Scudder’s long-suffering sidekick/foil Danny Ortiz, and Brian “Astro” Bradley, who not only goes toe to toe with heavyweight talents such as Neeson, but arguably even manages to steal evey scene he’s in as smart-but-cagey street kid T.J. Each and every role is straight from the “genre archetypes” playbook, it’s true (although, curiously, no “femme fatale” is on hand), but who’s gonna argue when they’re all fleshed out with this much style, skill, and depth? I’m certainly not — and neither should you.

Throw in some well-realized “period piece” authenticity that really makes you feel the grit and grime of what remains of New York’s seedy underbelly circa 1999, and what you’ve got here is a film that more than makes up for by means of execution what it lacks in originality. A Walk Among The Tombstones may not be terribly (okay, what the heck, even moderately) innovative, but like I said, sometimes you’re just in the mood for a private eye flick — and the next time you are, you could do a hell of a lot worse than this one.