By Preston Wilder
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in! It’s your own fault, Liam Neeson, you swore you wouldn’t play any more action heroes yet here you are playing another one. Yes, but Cold Pursuit is different, ostensibly another in a long line of mad-as-hell vigilantes taking revenge for a loved one but actually a very black comedy – based on a Danish-Norwegian original called In Order of Disappearance (2014) – that merely uses its star’s avenging-badass persona, building a lattice of eccentric characters and whimsical details around it.
Those details include a permanently angry Chinese lady, a couple of closeted henchmen, an Indian cabbie with questionable taste in music (this must be the first Liam Neeson joint with a ‘Barbie Girl’ cameo), and a note on the door of a morgue reminding employees to store corpses feet-first. The corpse in question is young Kyle, found dead from an apparent heroin overdose – but Kyle’s dad Nels, played by Neeson (Kyle is played, briefly, by his real-life son Micheàl Richardson), isn’t convinced that his son was a secret druggie. Nels is a snow-plough operator in icy Colorado, a man of few words whose job involves “keeping the path of civilisation open” in inclement weather. He’s not as dynamic as we might expect from a Neeson hero. His first reaction to losing his son is to place a shotgun in his own mouth – but, before he can pull the trigger, he discovers that Kyle was murdered and decides on revenge, going up the local gangster hierarchy all the way up to ‘Viking’ (Tom Bateman).
The strategy is familiar, harking back to classics like Point Blank (1967) and The Limey (1999) – but the tone is odd, and initially off-putting. Nels proves surprisingly adept at graphic violence, for a humble Everyman. He kills minions easily, without compunction (each dead man gets a moment of silence, and a title card with his name and nickname), then throws their bodies down a high, steep waterfall in the moonlight – an almost fairytale touch, cueing us that the film shouldn’t be taken entirely seriously.
At first, Cold Pursuit seems to be asking which of the two – vigilante or gangster – really stands for the “path of civilisation”. Nels, after all, is an inarticulate lump, remote from his wife and son (his wife’s farewell is a blank page, which is fitting; he never was good with words); Viking, on the other hand, is a smooth sophisticate, first seen talking Lord of the Flies with his young son (he also tries to put the boy on a high-protein diet). Dads, specifically bad dads, are a recurring motif, down to the minor character whose late father’s words of wisdom were “Always try to bang every waitress who serves you”. There’s also repeated talk of ethics and loyalty. A hitman known as ‘The Eskimo’ is censured for breaking his word. A native American continues to smoke traditional skunk even though, this being Colorado – changed from Norway in the original – legalised weed is everywhere. A female cop exploits an ex-boyfriend’s feelings, which the film clearly views as unethical.
All this stuff seems initially peripheral, maybe even distracting – but increasingly turns out to be the point; Neeson’s vigilante is the distraction, if anything, and indeed he disappears for much of the second half. The plot escalates into a war between Viking’s gang and a native-American coke dealer known as White Bull, the film picking up echoes of the Coens’ equally snowbound Fargo – the mounting body count (the profusion of title cards becomes a joke in itself), the tragi-comic misunderstandings, the incongruous emphasis on morality in the midst of violent death, the small-town cops trying to make sense of it all.
Cold Pursuit works as a shaggy-dog story with a sly sense of humour. Murderous thugs sip vegetable smoothies. The ‘Indians’ pick on an actual Indian, and bristle when a hotel receptionist tells them they need a reservation. A kidnapped kid asks his captor about Stockholm syndrome. The film is too long and becomes a bit monotonous (its four-star rating is borderline), but everything about it is unexpected, especially for those (like me) who never saw In Order of Disappearance – and that film can’t have been quite as rich, in any case, because it lacked Liam Neeson. The actor’s persona is cheerfully tweaked, his Taken certitude growing increasingly mired in tangent and non sequitur; the female cop’s objection to drug legalisation – she wants to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys – might equally apply to the film itself. “I picked a good road, and I stayed on it,” says Nels early on, speaking of his quiet small-town life, and the same could be said of Mr. Neeson’s path in the years since Taken – but Cold Pursuit isn’t really part of that programme, going off-road to morbidly amusing effect. This is not your dad’s vigilante movie.
DIRECTED BY Hans Petter Moland
STARRING Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman, Laura Dern
UK/Norway/US 2019 118 mins