There is a moment of trepidation early on in new Liam Neeson revenge thriller Cold Pursuit. Neeson’s character, Nelson Coxman, who makes his living driving a snow plough in a remote Colorado ski resort, comes on stage to receive a “citizen of the year” award and has to make a speech. Given the way Neeson put his foot in his mouth when he gave an interview about the film to The Independent earlier this month, you can’t help but be fearful about what he might say. Thankfully, he gets through the ordeal without making any offhand racist remarks.
Neeson is the strongest element in what turns out to be a very uneven, sub-Fargo film, which combines bloody violence with dark comedy. The Irish actor plays it straight, as if he is in a Jacobean revenge tragedy, while most of the rest of the cast give tongue-in-cheek performances. This is a remake of a Norwegian comedy thriller, In Order of Disappearance, also directed by Hans Petter Moland. It’s a glib, self-conscious affair in which most of the many murders are played for laughs.
Right at the start of the film, Coxman’s son is killed. The authorities try to pass the death off as the result of a heroin overdose but Coxman knows better. As he keeps on muttering, his son was not a druggie. His desire to find out what really happened, and to exercise retribution, keeps him alive when he might otherwise have committed suicide.
Coxman approaches detective work much as he does his job driving the snow plough. If there is an obstacle in front of him, he will just steamroller over it. He starts at the bottom of a chain of suspects and tries to kill and torture his way to the top. In doing so, he sparks a very vicious turf war between rival drug gangs led by Trevor “Viking” Calcote (Tom Bateman) and Native American, White Bull (Tom Jackson).
The killings provide the narrative backbone for the film. After each fresh murder, a cross will appear on screen with the name of the victim. Characters are shot, throttled and bludgeoned to death. The carnage is taking place around a sleepy ski resort.
Frank Baldwin’s screenplay sketches in the private lives of some of the protagonists while completely disregarding others. For example, Coxman’s wife (Laura Dern) quickly disappears from the story but a surprisingly large amount of screen time is given over to Viking’s bitter relationship with his ex-wife Aya (Julia Jones) and their fight for custody of their kid.
Liam Neeson’s prospects as a bankable Hollywood action hero remain uncertain following the now notorious interview. However, at 66, he remains the same commanding, craggy screen presence. He is the emotional anchor here. From time to time, Moland will show him in closeup, looking utterly grief stricken. When Coxman saws off a shotgun so he can hide it in his coat or chokes a man to death, he is implacable and unforgiving. In theory, the character here ought to have a comic dimension. He drives a snow plough for a living, has an outlandish name and is obsessed with machines. Neeson, though, plays him in deadly earnest.
Other cast members camp it up. Bateman is relentlessly flamboyant as the psychopathic businessman/gangster. Domenick Lombardozzi gives a tongue-in-cheek performance as his hard-as-nails henchman, Mustang, secretly planning a romantic getaway to Ireland with his boyfriend.
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As the body count rises, so may the audience’s feeling of indifference. With so many people being killed off, it’s hard to care about yet another homicide. Much of the film feels very derivative. Certain protagonists, for example the savvy, small-town female cop Kim Dash (Emmy Rossum), or the Native American assassins, could have been lifted from a Coen brothers drama. Plenty of other films have also shown blood spurting red over very white snow or corpses being tossed over waterfalls.
Cold Pursuit would surely have worked better either as a straight-up thriller or as a full-blown comedy. Its attempts at combining humour with hardboiled action are only fitfully successful. The jokiness risks seeming crass given the primal emotions the filmmakers are trying to touch on, while the violence sours what might otherwise have seemed like an engaging shaggy dog story.
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