Let's get one thing straight.

Liam Neeson plays a man with "a particular set of skills" in "A Walk Among the Tombstones," but the movie finds the star a long way from his action hero archetype.

This is a dour drama adapted from one of Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder novels in which the private investigator (played by Neeson) is hired to look into the murder of a drug dealer's (Dan Stevens) wife and winds up descending into the depraved world of her sadistic killers.

There's hardly any gun play and not much fun to be had in a movie that stresses atmospherics and character development above cartoonish pyrotechnics. It's set in Greenwood and other South Brooklyn neighborhoods that are transformed into a ghoulish urban nightmare, with the rain-swept and darkened streets mirroring the depths of the characters' damaged souls.

Neeson is far more vulnerable than usual when doing his tough-guy shtick; there's no aura of invincibility around his character. It's one of the better parts he's been given in a while, with the chance to play up the loneliness that comes with a profession practiced in the shadows.

The film ultimately is too serious-minded for its own good, though. The intense atmosphere clashes with the fundamentally convoluted plot (in which Scudder always has the answers, even if he's often unsure of himself), while the one-dimensional villains are so heinously evil that the movie's push toward realism is stifled.

"A Walk Among the Tombstones," at heart, is only a touch less goofy than "Taken" or "Non-Stop." And if it's got more integrity from a creative standpoint -- if its less of a craven lowest common denominator cash-in (although "Taken" is about as fun as action movies get) -- the picture's apparently deeply held belief in its significance ultimately serves as its undoing.

It's sharply made, with strong naturalistic inclinations, but if you think about it too long, the whole thing crumbles.

Directed by Scott Frank
Starring Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens
Rated R