Liam Neeson's 'Cold Pursuit' Is Like 'Taken' With a Snow Plow
In his latest action thriller, Cold Pursuit, Liam Neeson again plays a character with a very particular set of skills, but this time those skills all involve snow plows. The film's protagonist, the cheekily named Nels Coxman, is the friendly guy you call if you're looking to clear a stretch of road in Colorado after a particularly nasty blizzard. He'll help you get to work on time by showing up with his big truck, scraping away all the icy debris, and offering up some gruff encouragement. Unlike many of Neeson's besieged heroes, like the men he's played in hits like Taken, Run All Night, or The Commuter, Coxman isn't an ex-military assassin, an ex-cop, or an ex-mob-enforcer. He's a working stiff -- one who eventually kills a bunch of people.
That's part of what makes Cold Pursuit, which originally had the way cooler-sounding name Hard Powder and is a remake of a 2014 Norwegian film starring Stellan Skarsgård called In Order of Disappearance, such a potentially compelling twist on Neeson's gun-toting father-knows-best template. After receiving an award at a local community event, where he delivers a speech laced with dad-puns like "I picked a good road and I stayed on it," Coxman gets some tragic news: His son (Micheál Richardson) is found dead of an overdose, despite Nels's insistence that "Kyle wasn't a druggie." Quickly, the search for Kyle's killer becomes an obsession.
Beyond the Mr. Plow meets John Wick set-up, director Hans Petter Moland, who also helmed the Skarsgård original, brings a simultaneously cruel and soulful touch to the material. Instead of simply mowing down nameless henchmen like many shoot-em-ups, the film actually pauses and notes each death with a title card onscreen. (Characters are given little symbols to go along with their year of birth and death.) The humor is mean-spirited, including some obnoxious racial stereotypes, and the violence is brutal -- blood and teeth fly from bodies like confetti from a party popper -- but the tone is more whimsical than menacing. It's likely the first movie ever to open with an Oscar Wilde quote and later feature Aqua's "Barbie Girl" on the soundtrack.
And yet many moviegoers will be aware of Cold Pursuit for a different set of reasons. Last month during a press junket for the film, Neeson gave an interview to the British newspaper The Independent in which he described an incident from his past when he responded to a friend's rape by walking the streets wielding a club in the hopes that a "black bastard" might approach him so he could "kill him." It was a shocking, disturbing admission that was widely (and justifiably) condemned and criticized after the article was published. The next day Neeson appeared on Good Morning America, where he insisted "I’m not a racist” and attempted to provide justification for his remarks; the red carpet portion of the film's premiere was canceled by the studio Lionsgate. Cold Pursuit went from being a goofy-looking B-movie to a footnote in an ongoing publicity disaster.
On the subject of race and revenge, the film's script, which was adapted from the original movie by writer Frank Baldwin, isn't exactly insightful. The leader of the drug-dealing operation that murdered Coxman's son is a number-crunching, diet-obsessed white guy named Trevor "Viking" Calcote (Tom Bateman) who sneers through the movie in expensive-looking suits. "Viking" and his associates, who have nicknames like "Mustang" and "Windex," are loathsome and fond of making the type of sexist and racist zingers one often finds in crime movies and novels looking to provoke. You know Viking is especially bad because he mistreats his cute son, something our noble patriarch would never do.
As the scope of the story expands beyond Coxman's quest, the film also introduces a surprisingly deep roster of supporting characters, but they're mostly thinly drawn. There's a female cop (Emmy Rossum) who does most of her police work by manipulating an ex in another Colorado precinct; a black hitman nicknamed "The Eskimo" (Arnold Pinnock), who's belittled by "Viking" in a particularly stupid scene; and a rival gang of Native American criminals led by an assassin named White Bull (Tom Jackson). The ensemble quality might bring to mind various D-grade post-Tarantino riffs from the '00s like Smokin' Aces or Lucky Number Slevin, but Moland does a more effective job of moving gracefully between the various double-crosses and triple-crosses. The steering of the plot is nimble in a way that's surprising for a movie about a guy who drives a giant truck.
So, why doesn't Cold Pursuit totally work? The weary resignation that Neeson brings to the role imbues the story with a melancholy quality, but there's also a sense that this road has been travelled too many times before. (It lacks the visual ingenuity of Neeson's work with The Commuter director Jaume Collet-Serra.) While Hollywood remains fixated on the concept of revenge as the sole psychological motivator for action storytelling, it often feels like the movies themselves have less and less to say about the topic. The pathway has already been cleared. There's no need for a snow plow to push away more detritus.