Liam Neeson is a very accomplished actor with an extraordinary acting range and physical talent. It’s a shame that ever since his appearance in 2008’s Taken, he’s basically been in the same role film after film. That is certainly underselling his work (especially since his filmography is gigantic), but his more mainstream hits seem to be focused on the same thing: getting revenge for his family.
While watching Cold Pursuit, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was another attempt to turn the aging actor into an action star. Surprisingly, this is actually an English language remake of a Russian black comedy known as In Order of Disappearance. Both films, directed by Hans Petter Moland, follow the tale of a man broken by the death of his son seeking retribution.
While occasionally bringing the laughs and action, Cold Pursuit overly complicates things to the point where you wish Neeson was just punching dudes left and right in every scene.
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Release Date: February 8, 2019
Explaining too much about Cold Pursuit will basically give away the entire plot, but I’ll make a quick summary. Nelson Coxman (Neeson) is being honored by the resort town of Kehoe, Colorado for his work as a snowplow driver. While at the ceremony with his wife, Grace (Laura Dern), their son, Kyle (Micheál Richardson), is abducted at work and later killed by some drug lords. Nelson and his wife are informed the next day that he had died from a supposed heroin overdose, which sends the two of them into an irreversible depression.
After Grace leaves him, Nelson goes to commit suicide before his son’s friend interrupts him. It turns out that Kyle didn’t overdose, but had been kidnapped and killed by a local drug cartel. Not content to have the memory of his son be tarnished, Nelson sets out to right this wrong by killing everyone involved in the murder. That is essentially the same plot as Taken, just with more drugs.
As I said, explaining any of the other details beyond that point would give away the entire story. This isn’t a deep film and the “twists” in the story aren’t that well-hidden. I don’t have a problem with a film wanting to be a pulp action thriller, but my main issue is just how oddly complex Cold Pursuit tries to make this simple premise.
There are huge leaps in logic you need to make from scene to scene to figure out just what each character is doing. Instead of developing concrete personalities or even just giving us a little exposition, scenes go from Nelson learning the name of one of the kidnappers to knowing exactly where he is. He then punches the man a bit and learns precisely where the next guy is. It plays out like the film is deliberately trying to confuse the viewer to make up for its shortcomings.
Maybe it cuts down on the fluff usually associated with these types of films, but the lack of explanation doesn’t give proper context to what Nelson is doing. I understand he’s killing people, but I don’t know why he’s going to such extreme lengths. There is a tiny moment given to his wife saying Nelson never spent time with Kyle, but then she completely disappears from the film and I’m not sure why. Was their marriage on the rocks? Did Nelson neglect her? Did she not ever really exist?
There’s also a bunch of heavy-handed themes that don’t come back in any meaningful way. One of the cops in Kehoe, played by Emmy Rossum, is discussing the legalization of drugs with her partner and says a line of, “I want to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys.” This is clearly meant to foreshadow her discovery of Nelson’s murder spree, but then that never comes back in the film. It comes off as padding in a film that should have been a simple action movie.
You can even see this in the attempts at comedy the film has. When Nelson and Grace are standing with the coroner to identify their son, the scene holds a shot for such a prolonged amount of time that it becomes uncomfortable more than humorous. The man is pumping a pedal to raise the bed and the camera is quickly changing between shots of Nelson and the cops just looking at each other and waiting in anguish for almost a full minute. I wasn’t aware this was a dark comedy before viewing it, but even learning that fact doesn’t change how bloated the scene feels.
Then there is the villain of the film, Viking (Tom Bateman). We already have a lack of characterization for everyone else, but the film decides to turn Viking into a cartoon adversary instead of someone with actual motivation. He spouts off so many racist and sexist phrases in a single sentence that I don’t know how anyone could have ever taken him seriously. Again, I didn’t realize this was a dark comedy, but Viking goes way too far beyond cheese to laugh at. It doesn’t help that the performance is so serious that you can’t tell if Bateman even knows what the joke is.
This would all be fine if the film just delivered on its premise, but even that gets drawn out. For the first 35 minutes, though, I actually did start to get into Cold Pursuit. It was more convoluted than it needed to be, but Liam Neeson was kicking some ass and a few of the jokes were so off the wall that even the sternest of viewers would chuckle. In one particularly great moment, Nelson beats up a guy at a bridal outlet and then pauses to ask him about which quarterback he thinks was the best. That’s the kind of dark humor I would expect from a dark comedy.
After that moment, though, the film attempts to show us what the bad guys are doing and then goes into something about a turf war with the Native American tribe in Colorado. Now Viking thinks the Natives are coming after his son and the film puts Nelson on the backburner for quite a bit. I don’t care about Viking’s racism or how the Native American’s once made a pact, I just want to see Liam Neeson destroying people.
That doesn’t come back for what feels like an eternity and that’s what ultimately drew me out of the film. Maybe I had certain unconscious expectations before viewing this, but I really did not care about anyone else in this movie. I’m also struggling to recall anyone’s names, despite looking at the IMDB page while writing this review. There is so little time given to any specific character that the viewer is never given a reason to root for anyone.
That is what truly baffles me. If you go on to the Wikipedia article for Cold Pursuit, you can see the plot summary is four paragraphs long. Why is a narrative that can be summed up in roughly 25 sentences drawn out over a nearly two-hour film? This is a film that is both too long and too short and it just confuses the life out of me.
At least when the action does crop up, it’s shot competently. There is no shaky cam and all of the punches and hits feel visceral. Neeson gets in quite a few jabs on people and it’s always a blast to see him shoving a sawed-off sniper rifle into a dude’s mouth. In those fleeting moments, you can see what director Moland was going for since they are oddly humorous in their execution.
What it comes down to is that you’re just going to have to shut your brain off to get more enjoyment out of this. Even then, I just feel the film elongates a premise that didn’t need to be dragged out. You could have cut off half an hour and Cold Pursuit would’ve explained roughly the same information. Without proper motivation for the viewer, though, it’s hard to care about what is transpiring on screen. Ultimately, that is what drags the film down.