September 2014 will see the release of a film entitled A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on a novel written by Lawrence Block and starring Liam Neeson as a character named Matt Scudder. A Walk Among the Tombstones isn’t the only Scudder novel Block penned; in fact, it was the tenth installment to be published in a seventeen novel (as of now) series of Scudder stories. And it’s not the first time a Scudder novel has received a cinematic adaptation.
Many viewers who see the Neeson film may not realize that this character was previously brought to life on screen 18 years earlier, with Jeff Bridges in the role.
8 Million Ways to Die was an adaptation of the fifth novel in the Scudder series, published in 1982. The screenplay adaptation was written by David Lee Henry (whose other credits include the Patrick Swayze classic Road House, the Steven Seagal vehicle Out for Justice, and The Evil That Men Do, starring Charles Bronson) and multiple Oscar nominee/winner Oliver Stone, and the director’s seat was occupied by the great Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail).
The film opens with an incident that changes Scudder’s life and ends his career as a Los Angeles police officer: during a drug bust, the suspect starts attacking cops with a baseball bat, forcing Scudder to shoot him dead as his terrified wife and children look on. This event sends Scudder on a downward spiral of alcoholism that leads to his wife kicking him out of the house and divorcing him.
The story then jumps ahead to a point in time when Scudder is regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and celebrating six months of sobriety. He’s picking up the pieces of his life, hoping to get reinstated to the police force. Then a young woman named Sunny (Alexandra Paul) shows up, desperate for his help in getting out of working as a prostitute at a club owned by Chance Walker (Randy Brooks), who Scudder once arrested for drug offenses back in the day.
Sunny seems terrified of Chance and the possibility that he won’t let her off his payroll, but Chance insists that the girls who work for him – also including Sarah, played by Rosanna Arquette – are simply paid to show up at his parties, they’re not prostitutes, and he doesn’t care if Sunny wants to do it anymore or not.
Scudder is completely baffled as to what is going on here, and it gets even worse when he witnesses Sunny being abducted in a van and is unable to catch up with the vehicle in time to save her from being murdered.
The harrowing experience causes Scudder to relapse, and from there he has to navigate a plot involving Chance, Sarah, and a man named Angel Moldonado, a regular at Chance’s club who wants to buy into co-owning it… using some of the money he makes as big time drug runner.
Angel Moldonado was an early film role for Andy Garcia, who brings a fantastic screen presence to the character, a guy who at times still seems to be having fun even when he’s seconds from trying to rip your head off. When Bridges and Garcia face off in dialogue scenes, trying to keep their cool while trading insults and threats, it’s utterly captivating.
8 Million Ways to Die devotes a lot of time to simply watching its characters interact with each other. The mystery Scudder finds himself in the middle of is actually quite easily solved, while large stretches of the film’s 115 minute running time are made up of the time he spends getting to know Sunny and Sarah.
The film is especially strong when it shows how Scudder deals with his alcoholism and the pain he feels over what drinking has done to his life. It may be that the film is so proficient at showing these details because Hal Ashby himself had struggled with substance abuse problems.
Jeff Bridges is always great to watch regardless of the film he’s in, and his portrayal of Matt Scudder is of a man who’s likeable and noble despite how flawed he is, and also a man who seems willing to wade into any situation with a brave face, no matter how dangerous, when he’s in the right.
Fans of the Scudder novel series seem to be mixed-to-negative on how the adaptation of 8 Million Ways to Die turned out (most being especially upset that the setting was moved from New York to LA), but taken on its own it’s a solid mystery thriller with some great performances at its core and a nicely realistic style and approach to its characters and story.