Nelson Coxman (Liam Neeson) lives a quiet life as a snowplow driver in a Colorado ski town. His long, dedicated service has seen him receive Citizen of the Year. His idyllic life is shattered when his adult son is found dead, apparently from a heroin overdose. Refusing to believe the evidence, he soon discovers his son was murdered at the behest of a local drug kingpin. His attempts at revenge soon have that kingpin at war with a criminal rival, until the entire town is caught in the middle of a violent turf war.
From the outside Cold Pursuit seems set to be a predictable and ordinary picture, featuring as it does genre stalwart Liam Neeson in the role of an ordinary person forced to violently fight back gangs of criminals. It is a film Neeson has made, in one variation or another, on an annual basis since Taken in 2008. He has, in effect, replaced Harrison Ford as Hollywood’s premier star of middle-aged action cinema. Thankfully, in the viewing Cold Pursuit is a delightful surprise. The familiar blunt physical violence is paired here with an exceptional seam of self-aware, bleak comedy. It erupts from what should be traumatically upsetting violence, contrasting against it and generating laughs not simply through humour but by the shock of the twists in tone. In at least one scene it also does the reverse, hurling a shocking joke at the viewer than pausing just long enough for the viewer to recognise the utter horror of the moment too. It’s this back-and-forth ambivalence that makes Cold Pursuit sing, and giving it the familiar awkward tone of a Coen Brothers or Martin McDonagh picture. This one comes from Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland, and remakes his own 2014 film In Order of Disappearance (which, to offer full disclosure, I have not seen).
Liam Neeson has a gift for deadpan comedy that Hollywood rarely exploits. Here his performance as Nelson “Nels” Coxman is delightfully absurd. Nels should be well out of his depth, yet seems to have a preternatural gift for killing drug dealers and secretly dumping their bodies over the local waterfall. His murders are so effective it creates misunderstandings among the local gangsters and accidentally spark off a bloody tit-for-tat sequence of revenge killings. By underplaying his own part, Neeson makes the comedy progressively funnier as the film goes on. That said, Neeson’s frankly bizarre admission in promotional interviews that as a young man he entertained committing a race-motivated revenge killing puts quite a dent in his performance. It would be completely understandable to avoid this film altogether, despite its enormous creative merits. Neeson has transformed himself into an uncomfortable person to watch, at least for a while to come.
The supporting cast are excellent, with most playing various nick-named gangsters from two rival gangs. The first is led by the fastidious and sadistic Viking (Tom Bateman), An Ayran-style snob exaggerated right to the edge of what remains both funny and believable. The other is ruled by White Bull (Tom Jackson), a much less amusing but far more resonant Native American leader who bristles at his territory being overtaken by a white American luxury ski lodge. The film handles its representation of Native Americans with a variable quality. Each member of White Bull’s gang showcases individual depth and nuance, but they feel somewhat tokenistic and silly overall. Things are also disappointing when the film pairs a stereotypical Asian girlfriend with Nels’ older brother (played marvellously by William Forsythe). Elizabeth Thai plays her well, but on the page it is a slightly risible character. Laura Dern is excellent as Nels’ wife, but she is terribly under-utilised and leaves the picture much too early. The film tends to neglect its female cast overall. The largest female role likely goes to Emmy Rossum’s ambitious police officer Kimberly Dash, and even then there is a sense she could have done a lot more in the story.
Many characters leave the picture with a striking rapidity; each death is charmingly marked with a caption screen giving their name, nickname, and some indication of their religion (there are a lot of crosses and eagles). It gives the film a distinctive and slightly formal tone, and that only aids in expanding the comedic elements. The film’s production elements are mostly well-developed. The stark snowy setting looks great on the big screen, and Moland does not miss an opportunity to spatter it with blood. The various settings all reflect their related characters well. Nels lives in a warm, brown cabin with plenty of wooden detailing. Viking lives in a positive lair of glass and steel. George Fenton’s musical score is over-played from time to time; he could easily have trusted the film’s absurd comedy to speak for itself.
Cold Pursuit is not a flawless film, and the drawbacks it has are the sort that can turn a viewer right off a picture. It’s representations of race are just a little lazy and dubious, and it could use its female cast much better than it does. It also uses a homosexual couple in a manner that you could praise and criticise. Put all of that aside for a moment, and you can find a tremendously funny black comedy, and likely the best film of its kind since In Bruges. It just feels, between the film’s own quirks and Liam Neeson’s ill-timed confession, a little tainted. Buyer apply your own feelings about these things, and beware.