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Liam Neeson is one of the most iconic action stars currently working. The Oscar winner has made a name for himself by kicking ass and taking names, most notably with his signature role in the Taken franchise. He's also expanded to a variety of other vengeful characters, including roles in The Grey, Widows, and The Commuter. And now he's at it again with the new icy thriller Cold Pursuit.
Directed by Hans Petter Moland, Cold Pursuit is actually a loose remake of his own Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance. The film follows Liam Neeson's Nels Coxman, a snow plower who is adored by his Rocky Mountains community -- so much so that they give him an award for it. All is well for Coxman until his son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) is murdered under mysterious circumstances, and it unhinges Nels enough that he's inspired to go out there and kill the men responsible for the death.
What follows is a fairly by-the-numbers Liam Neeson revenge movie, as the 66-year-old actor begins brutally murdering bad guys using a variety of household tools and equipment. It is ultimately a three-tier story of murder and power, as Nels' quest puts him in conflict with psychotic gangster Viking (Tom Bateman) and a group of Native Americans led by White Bull (Tom Jackson).
Han Petter Moland attempts a unique tone in the project, which is sometimes hard to nail down as a viewer. In many ways, Cold Pursuit feels modeled off of Fargo, as the murder and violence is balanced by moments of levity. There are quirky characters and surprising comedic moments in the middle of some of the film's most grisly murder scenes. And its that dissonance that seems to be Cold Pursuit's biggest strong point, but somehow also its weakness.
On one side, there's family interpersonal drama happening, as Nels and his wife (Laura Dern) mourn the random loss of their son. Since that event occurs so early in the movie, it's set up to be a family drama. But that's soon abandoned to focus on Nels' thirst for vengeance, and how his actions affect the escalating conflict between Viking and White Bull.
Soon the chaos of gunfire takes over, and Tom Bateman's Viking quickly begins stealing the show. Viking is almost cartoonishly evil throughout the film, casually dropping racist language as easily as he shoots and decapitates those who cross him. This character is equal parts hilarious and terrifying, and Bateman puts a strong performance in for the film's villain. But the character's language sometimes borders on too offensive to enjoy.
Indeed, the biggest problem with Cold Pursuit is its screenplay. While it's clear that writer Frank Baldwin enjoyed putting raunchy humor into a Liam Neeson-led project, but there are flaws that make his high points fade into the background. Aside from the offensive language that doesn't always come with a satisfying punch-line, the characters are handled somewhat bizarrely -- especially the women.
The women in Cold Pursuit are mostly kept to the side lines, and are never seen actually interacting with each other throughout the course of the film. Laura Dern is almost criminally underused as Grace Coxman, who is haphazardly written out of the film early. Viking's ex-wife Aya (Julia Jones) is written as a complicit harpy, while Emmy Rossum's well-meaning detective fails to get the screen time to really develop.
Because of the writing flaws, it's sometimes hard to appreciate the irreverent tone that Cold Pursuit is going for. It can be done, but there's a certain amount of suspense of disbelief and willingness to go on the ride that's necessary to make Liam Neeson enjoyable. And there are strong moments to enjoy: over the top death scenes, solid jokes, and Liam Neeson's typical badassery. But it may take some adjusting before you can appreciate Cold Pursuit's good parts.
Visually, Hans Petter Moland does great work, as the snowy setting of the movie becomes a character itself. Watching Nels use his enormous snow plow is a sight, as the true power of the vehicle/weapon becomes clear. Indeed, the weather and setting help make even mundane shots more interesting, as the body count accumulates like the snow.
Ultimately, Cold Pursuit is a bit of a white out, with its message unclear by the film's end. And while revenge was indeed served cold, maybe the movie could have benefited from being defrosted a bit.