By Jim Slotek
Before his weird race-rape-revenge anecdote got him into hot water this past week, I hadn’t made a connection between Liam Neeson’s youth in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and his movie persona as a one-man revenge machine.
But conversely, if any environment should inspire a grief-stricken man to take a chill-pill and let the authorities handle it, it’s the snowy, frozen Colorado tableau of Cold Pursuit. In it, Neeson plays a snow-plow driver who takes the law into his own hands (as opposed to all those movies where he plays a man of a particular set of skills who takes the law, more believably, into his own hands).
The movie is an English-language remake of Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s 2014 film In Order of Disappearance, filmed with no small amount of eccentricity by Moland himself. And having seen Neeson play the revenge game prosaically in the Taken franchise and films like A Walk Among The Tombstones and Run All Night, it is a bit of a welcome change to see that persona squeezed through a Scandinavian quirk-machine. But only a bit.
Cold Pursuit begins on a high for Neeson’s character Nels Coxman (don’t think they don’t squeeze a couple of gags out of that). He’s being named Citizen of the Year of Kehoe, his small resort town, for a lifetime of keeping the roads more or less open through Ice Age level snowfalls. Did we mention Laura Dern plays Nels’ wife? Blink and you’ll miss her.
It’s followed by a low after we briefly meet his son Kyle (Micheál Richardson, Neeson’s real-life offspring), who is soon killed by as-yet-unidentified gangsters. The death is set up as a drug overdose, and accepted as such by lazy resort police. So Nels does what any law-abiding citizen would do. Go on a cold, calculating rampage. (I’m kidding, of course, what a normal person would do, as soon as he has a witness confirming the murder, would be to haul that guy to the cops and say, “SEE?”)
And how does Nels know how to efficiently kill people and just as efficiently dispose of their bodies? Apparently, he reads crime novels.
I’m not sure that the absurdity that comes so seamlessly from a Norwegian is a good fit for Hollywood-fed American audiences, who prefer their violence un-ironic. Nels’ begins working his way up the crime-boss foodchain until he reaches a snotty young druglord named Viking (Tom Bateman), who is so unable to conceive of a snow-plow driver mowing down his men, that he assumes a lifelong truce has been broken with a Native crime gang, led by a dapper drug kingpin named White Bull (Tom Jackson).
So, natch, the focus soon moves away from Nels to the impending White versus Native turf war.
At this point, the script is all over the place. And Moland turns to audio-visual aids to help us keep track of what is going on. To wit: Each dead gangster is identified by nickname in an ornate 19th Century style tombstone font that put me in mind of the Mexican Day of the Dead.
Characters are introduced, and then are brutally murdered before we have any idea who they are. For some reason, Viking’s hypersmart, sensitive son – an intended kidnap victim - gets all the funny lines. (Although White Bull does get to complain that he should have bought a casino instead of investing in cocaine).
There’s a kind of wannabe-hip quality to it all, but by the end, we’ve been so hammered by quirk (and numbed by bloody deaths) that we’ve forgotten what motivated this glib daisy-chain of revenge in the first place.
Cold Pursuit. Directed by Hans Peter Moland. Starring Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman and Tom Jackson. Opens wide, Friday, February 8.