AMID THE GUMSHOED MASSES of fictional detectives, author Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder looms large and wounded, an unlicensed private eye who continually takes the weight of the world on his shoulders in an attempt to quiet his inner demons. Adapting the 10th book in Block's Scudder series, A Walk Among the Tombstones nails the mournful cynicism of the source material. If the sight of a man in a trenchcoat doggedly chasing down leads dings your particular pleasure centers, get to the theater as soon as you can.

Beginning with a tragic flashback, the story follows Scudder (Liam Neeson), an ex-cop who divvies up his time between doing paid favors for acquaintances and attending AA meetings. When the wife of a local drug dealer (Dan Stevens) gets kidnapped, Scudder finds himself on the trail of a pair of scarily blasé serial killers.

Scott Frank, who wrote the textbook Elmore Leonard adaptations Out of Sight and Get Shorty before making his directorial debut in 2007 with the woefully underseen The Lookout, does similarly terrific work here, with his clean plotting and consciously retro staging gaining extra resonance when complemented by the towering-even-when-slumped Neeson. The second actor to portray the character (Jeff Bridges made a valiant attempt in 1986's coked-up, Oliver Stone-scripted Eight Million Ways to Die), Neeson makes Scudder his own from the get-go, delivering a performance that's world weary and darkly amused—and displaying a wonderful sort of impatience with the lowlifes he regularly comes into contact with.

Solid B-movies are easy to underestimate, and the lack of any Taken-style exclamation points may make A Walk Among the Tombstones a bit too square to make an immediate impact. In hindsight, however, it becomes apparent how all of the scenes are allowed to come to a logical endpoint, how the camera seems to always be in just the right unflashy place, and how even the briefly glimpsed characters get an extra line or two to establish character. Neeson and Frank's careful craftsmanship feel destined to have a long, deserved half-life. It comes by its melancholy honestly.