Directed by: Hans Petter Moland
Runtime: 118 minutes
If there’s a reliably consistent viewing experience in this messy decade of fake news, mass anxiety and Emoji movies, it’s that most trustworthy of genre staples: the quintessential, old faithful, Liam Neeson revenge-thriller. (I quite enjoy talking about these at great length; *insert shameless plug here*.) A quick glimpse at the poster for Cold Pursuit – the newest entry in this illustrious canon of ‘January Neesons‘ – hints at an all-too-familiar story: the words ‘Revenge is best served cold’ linger above a grizzled Neeson as he stares, menacing into the snow blown foreground. Similarly, sitting through the film’s trailer offers up tantalising possibilities for what could be secondary titles: Taken On Ice; Kehoe (Definitely Not Fargo); Natural Born Chillers; and at one point, even Hard Powder was thrown around as a working title. Yet for all its casual surface appeal and sure-fire enjoyability, Cold Pursuit remains (at least to me) a curious and unforgiving beast.
Neeson plays Nelson ‘Nels’ Coxman, a straight-laced citizen in the fictional Colorado town of Kehoe, who spends his time snow-plowing roads around the Rockies and taking stock of his idealised family unit. That is, until his son winds up dead from a drug overdose under shaky and mysterious circumstances. With that bitter pill to swallow, an implacable Coxman takes to the streets for desperate answers before running afoul of dysfunctional drug cartels vying for turf in his quaint hometown. Bodies quickly begin to pile up on both sides, as tensions soon escalate into a shitstorm of blizzard proportions.
What’s curious about Cold Pursuit are the details. Firstly, the film is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film, In Order of Disappearance, directed by Hans Petter Moland. In what’s surely a very small and lucrative club, Moland returns here to helm the English language remake of his own film, switching out screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson for Frank Baldwin, and Swedish talent Stellan Skarsgård for Neeson as lead. And if those alternative titles weren’t obvious enough, Moland’s film pays significant homage to the works of Tarantino and The Coen Brothers in terms of both tone and execution. Which is where we arrive at the more demanding aspects of the film. To put it bluntly, this shit is straight-up bleak. Like ‘stranded on top of a mountain peak, with no clothes, no food, there’s sleet in your eyes and oh, it’s also the apocalypse’ bleak. I enjoy a dark comedy as much as the next guy, but the grey-to-black-to-obsidian tonal shifts in Cold Pursuit can feel a little jarring at times.
After his son’s sudden death, Coxman decides to, quite literally, take justice into his own hands, beating, punching and strangling henchman with ruthless efficiency. Moland frames these scenes in such a way that the humour seeps into the minor points (last gasps, dragging limp bodies, waiting for lifts, etc.) without distracting from the violence and brutality on display. Neeson plays Coxman as dry as possible, which given the material and anyone expecting to see him return to the melodramatic overkill of Taken’s Bryan Mills, mostly makes sense. However, his performance never quite matches his character’s circumstances. Coxman takes the news of his son’s death – the core narrative event that drives the entire film – with a shrug, a bemused expression and zero visible signs of anguish or pain. The man then straight-up murders people, before going home to his distraught wife and leftovers to eat for dinner. And he’s meant to be the good guy, the father, the ‘Citizen of the Year’ but how are we to believe that, when we aren’t given a single shred of it.
In terms of the supporting cast and subplots, Cold Pursuit suffers from what I like to call ‘the miscellany of many’: a trope common to gangster/mob genre films, and essentially a fancy way of saying the film is bloated. With a two-hour runtime, the film does it’s best to service its peripheral characters – Emmy Rossum’s eager detective, Kim Dash; a devilish Tom Bateman as neurotic drug lord Viking; William Forsythe as Coxman’s brother, Brock aka ‘Wingman’; Tom Jackson as a Native American kingpin, White Bull – however, none of their B-plots conclude with any narrative weight or any real bearing on Coxman’s emotional arc. Apart from convergence in the climactic shootout, and their place among the tombstone title cards representing character demise (there’s those dastardly Coen Brothers again), the time spent on quippy dialogue, scene set-ups and minimal pay-off results in the film’s second act feeling like a separate film all of its own.
Now, in truth, in deciding whether Cold Pursuit is worth your time, I would argue that there’s definitely more pros than cons here (despite Neeson’s apparent desire for blatant self-sabotage through the hottest of takes). If you’ve stomached and/or belly laughed at the backseat and woodchipper scenes in Pulp Fiction and Fargo respectively, then there’s likely something here for you to enjoy. Cold Pursuit makes an admirable case for a remake that stands confidently apart from and next to the original, while going a long way to prove that homage isn’t necessarily a dirty word in contemporary cinema.