Women’s suffering as a motivation for men to do something adventurously badass features in, oh, about one movie every week; this week’s is The Equalizer. But rarely has that connection — the abuse or murder of a woman or women kickstarting a man’s emotional and spiritual journey — been so explicit as it is in A Walk Among the Tombstones. Novelist Lawrence Block’s ex-cop private eye Matt Scudder, here in Liam Neeson (A Million Ways to Die in the West) mode, doesn’t work for drug-trafficker scum like Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens: The Guest) as a matter of principle, not even to solve the mystery of the murder of his wife after her kidnappers took the ransom and killed her anyway. (She is all but unnamed and never appears onscreen except in a painting; way to underscore that she’s not a person but an idealized representation.) It’s only after Scudder discovers that her body was disposed of in a particularly gruesome way — nothing is left to the imagination of the viewer — that he agrees to take the case. Scudder is so broken, you see, that a woman has to be extra dead before he can care.
Neeson’s good performance and an intriguing sidekick in teenaged TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley: Earth to Echo), a homeless kid who aspires to PI-dom, are the things worth checking out here. Less appealing is the general seen-it-before familiarity of everything else, from the creepy serial killers (David Harbour [The Equalizer] and Adam David Thompson [Martha Marcy May Marlene]) responsible for Mrs. Kristo’s death and others that Scudder uncovers to the way that screenwriter and director Scott Frank (The Lookout) sexualizes the terrorizing of one of the victims in the opening credits: we think we’re looking at a scene of lovemaking, as the camera and a man’s hands caress a woman’s body, until the hands turn violent and we finally are allowed to see the fear on the woman’s face. Most ridiculous — to the point of risibility — is the finale, which revolves around rescuing another victim of the bad guys and is accompanied by a voiceover recitation of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, of which Scudder is naturally a member. For him, redemption is possible only via anonymous female pain.