By: Steve Pulaski
I've come to realize that early-in-the-year Liam Neeson actioneers are better with slick concepts as opposed to an emphasis on blunt-force. That's why Non-Stop was better than The Commuter, and why The Grey's overarching theme of survival was far more compelling to me than Taken or its two sequels could've ever hoped to be. Its the conceptual simplicity and excitement inherent in Cold Pursuit's premise that makes it an immediately engaging motion-picture, and its inclusion of absurd humor, a high, creative body-count, and its memorable secondary characters that make it a wild, good time at the movies.
Directed by Hans Petter Moland, the film is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance (which is coyly referenced in the film's closing credits). Moland was at the head of that flick as well, and for his American debut, he revisits a snowy locale with one of America's most reliable acting veterans. Neeson plays Nels Coxman, a snowplow driver for the ski-community of Kehoe, Colorado. He has just been awarded "Citizen of the Year," for continuing his service in plowing through ten feet of snow on a regular basis assuring vehicles can commute safely, when his son is abducted and murdered by a drug dealer. This prompts Nels to turn into revenge-dad, hunting down everyone from lackeys carrying out orders to the top-dog, yuppie drug kingpin known as "Viking" (Tom Bateman in a viciously nasty performance).
With every character's murder follows a full-screen "in memoriam" title-card that'll eventually merit a grin out of you for no other reason either than how prolific one pops up. As Nels dives deeper into this world, other interesting players rise to the surface, such as White Bull (Tom Jackson), the leader of a rival group of Native American drug dealers, Kim Dash (Shameless' Emmy Rossum), a rookie cop, Brock (William Forsythe), Nels' brother, one of the film's most impressively drawn supporting characters, and Ryan (Bates Motel's Nicholas Holmes), Viking's son who eventually becomes a crucial player in Nels' game.
One of the most under-served characters at hand is Nels' wife, played by Laura Dern, who is so needless that she disappears after maybe four scenes and three or four mumbled lines of dialog. At times, writer Frank Baldwin juggles too many characters, although he does an admirable job trying to humanize members of both Viking's crew and White Bull's loyal group of men. I recently rewatched a good portion of Martin Scorsese's Casino and again marveled at how effectively its secondary characters were handled. Baldwin at least makes an attempt to illustrate the abundance of men, and that's not an easy thing to do when they operate under names like The Eskimo, Shiv, Sly, Wingman, and Mustang.
Cold Pursuit's black, sardonic sense of humor saves it from going down a glum path, and Moland and Baldwin employ it in a way that recalls Tarantino or the Coen brothers (the Fargo comparisons will be plentiful and I'd say mostly warranted). There's a hilarious bit involving a character explaining his methods to seduce hotel maids; a method that boasts a 31% success rate. An encounter between Viking and The Eskimo is richly funny as tense as it is, and there's something quietly moving about Nels asking a goon who was a better quarterback, John Elway or Peyton Manning, before he puts a bullet in his chest. Baldwin channels his Elmore Leonard when it comes to crafting pulpy crime scenarios, and Cold Pursuit's carnality and ugliness make the entire picture pretty.
Being that Cold Pursuit invites comedy into the picture means that Neeson has to work on being more than just a beat-em-up action figure. My beef with Taken has always been simple: after 40 minutes of great buildup, it discards whatever narrative grace it had to essentially be a Sega Genesis platform game involving an indestructible protagonist pummeling enemies in a redundant display of C-grade fighting scenes. Moland's concept is predicated upon caustic wit and intuitiveness. We're reminded of Neeson and Nels' age quite often, such as when he's exchanging blows with a down-and-out goon on the plow of his truck, panting, wheezing, and trying to remain upright — or when he haphazardly lugs a body across a parking garage. It's not an insult to the caricature Neeson has erected for himself over the last decade, but the reality of it.
With no shortage of dime-store action films, Cold Pursuit is quite the romp, and I assume it will hold up with subsequent viewings. Most people probably won't acknowledge how it is leagues better than Taken, and that's something that disheartens me, at the end of the day. It's been too long since Neeson flaunted this particular set of skills in an action movie.