It was all the way back in 2009 that the Liam Neeson film “Taken” hit theaters, and it become clear at that moment that Neeson has a very particular set of skills involving gripping portrayals in dark action thrillers. Neeson has since starred in many such movies, righting wrongs when a villain kills someone or, at the very least, said villain threatens violence.
Now, here we are, in 2019 with the actor appearing in “Cold Pursuit,” a movie which not only allows the actor to exercise his skills once more, but adds a large helping of dark comedy to the affair. Directed by Hans Petter Moland and based on the Norwegian film “Kraftidioten” (also directed by Moland), this entry in the Neeson oeuvre very definitely steers into the skid.
It is true that the action sequences in the film never quite build to a fever pitch, even when there are large numbers of people involved, but “Cold Pursuit” keeps the audience involved by constantly shifting between different sets of characters and more than a little gallows humor. Every time someone dies in the film, the audience is treated to the text of their name, along with a cross or similar icon, on screen. As the death count increases, so does the appearance of names and it quickly becomes a running gag. This is not the only joke, it is just the one that appears the most.
As for the story, Neeson’s Nels Coxman is a snow plow operator in the town of Kehoe, Colorado, and he is on a quest for revenge after his son his murdered by a drug lord. Although the deaths are bloody and brutal, Moland treats everything surrounding them as funny. So, Coxman will not strangle someone for quite long enough or will grow tired punching a guy or a shot will linger for slightly too long as Coxman drags a body across a floor.
It isn’t just Coxman’s actions that are a source of humor either. The movie pokes fun at anything it can, including a horrific squeaking sound as a corpse is jacked up to viewing height within a morgue. The noise just keeps going and going until the body lifts slowly into frame. It is morbid, but by extending the sequence for as long as he does, Moland finds humor in it.
The jokes may be a necessary device to compensate for what otherwise could be a dismal slog. Coxman’s quest occurs as he is separating from his wife, Grace (Laura Dern and involves his ex-mob brother, Brock “Wingman” Coxman (William Forsythe), with whom he has clearly had a falling out.
Nels Coxman is trying to get to the top of the mob food chain and find Trevor “Viking” Calcote (Tom Bateman), and along the way a whole lot of people with bad nicknames find themselves in Coxman’s crosshairs. Eventually Native American drug dealers, led by White Bull (Tom Jackson), get involved as does law enforcement in the form of Emmy Rossum and John Doman’s small town cops. None of the groups are safe from one another or from the deadly serious humor.
While there is certainly no opportunity for a joke left on the table, as noted above, there is more rom for action. Although the kinetic energy of the story builds beautifully, with all the various groups rushing headlong towards one another, those actual moments of interaction are not terribly pulse-pounding. As a single example, what could be a harrowing moment between Coxman in his snow plow and one hapless villain in a jeep on a single lane road with mountains of snow on either side ends before it begins. This operates in direct contrast to the coroner scene where lifting a body into frame is laborious (in a good way).
Neeson gets some wonderful moments in the film, but the most memorable of the characters is Bateman’s Viking. He is an out-and-out bad guy and “Cold Pursuit” instantly characterizes him as such when he tells his son, Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), to beat up a bully at school and that everything the boy needs to know is in “Lord of the Flies.” Viking then admonishes Ryan for not yet having read the book when he has already given the boy a copy. Bateman seems to relish the role and every opportunity he has to prove just how awful a human being Viking is, and the audience gets to enjoy it as well.
The scenery (a portion of the film was shot on location in Canada) is utterly gorgeous, with the clearly dangerous mountains and weather only feeding into the sense of foreboding. However, just as with the action, some of that potential build is never realized.
Whatever its shortcomings, “Cold Pursuit” ends up being an above average Liam Neeson vehicle. If one goes in for dark humor and gobs of blood, the film more than gets the job done. Simply put, it offers up two hours of Neeson doing what he seems to do best – exercising that particular set of skills.
photo credit: Lionsgate