ART IMITATING LIFE
‘Cold Pursuit’: Inside Liam Neeson’s Scandal-Scarred Revenge Film
During a press tour for the film, the 66-year-old Irish actor confessed to once pursuing a racially motivated revenge killing. It casts his movie in a disturbing new light.
Over the past 10 years, during which he’s reinvented himself as a one-man wrecking crew, Liam Neeson has eliminated enemies with guns, knives, vehicles, and his bare hands. But never before has he dispatched his adversaries quite like he does in Cold Pursuit: with a snowplow.
In theaters Feb. 8, Neeson’s latest is a remake of 2014’s Norwegian thriller In Order of Disappearance starring Stellan Skarsgård, and its fidelity to its source material is no surprise, considering that it was directed by the original film’s helmer Hans Petter Moland. Its changes are largely cosmetic, including its relocation from the snowy hinterlands of Norway to the frigid domestic terrain of Colorado, as well as the name change of its protagonist. In Moland’s initial feature, Skarsgård’s character was Nils Dickman—and yes, that surname spoke to his big swinging virility. In this do-over, meanwhile, Neeson is called Nels Coxman. I think we can all agree that’s an upgrade.
As one police officer (John Doman) tells his partner (Emmy Rossum), the word “Coxman” is defined as “a man adept at the art of fornication.” True to form, Neeson’s father and husband is an expert at wielding his enormous machinery—namely, the giant behemoths he uses to plow cavernous passageways to and from the frigid town of Kehoe, Colorado, where he lives with wife Grace (Laura Dern) and son Kyle (Micheál Richardson). Locals award Coxman their “Citizen of the Year” prize, which requires him to give a speech that the stoic man-of-few-words doesn’t want to give. Nonetheless, as an individual who Does What Is Necessary, he successfully accomplishes his public-speaking task, only to then learn that Kyle has fatally overdosed on heroin—even though, as he says, his boy wasn’t a “druggie.”
We know Coxman is correct, because Cold Pursuit has already shown us Kyle being abducted, injected full of drugs, and dumped in a public square. Repulsed by her husband’s refusal to accept that they didn’t really know their kid, Grace takes off, leaving behind only a blank Dear John letter. However, before suicidal Coxman can pull the trigger of a rifle he places in his mouth, he learns that he was right all along: Kyle was accidentally nabbed and offed for an airport colleague’s theft of cocaine from narcotics kingpin Viking (Tom Bateman). This immediately incites Coxman’s hunger for vengeance, and he’s soon slowly moving his way up the drug-gang ladder, finding one low-level flunky after another, doing not-nice things to them, and tossing their bodies (wrapped in chicken wire so fish can nibble on their flesh, thus preventing them from floating) over a nearby waterfall.
Those who’ve seen In Order of Disappearance will be disappointed to hear that, with Cold Pursuit, director Moland has predominantly retraced his steps. Most of the film’s scenes (including dialogue) are accurate replicas of those found in its predecessor, and Neeson staunchly channels Skarsgård’s quiet fury. Not that the 66-year-old headliner is merely doing pantomime; this is a role, and performance, tailor-made for Neeson. Like so many of his recent action-oriented roles (Taken, The Grey, The Commuter), Coxman is defined by his moral certitude—convinced he knows the truth, even in the face of others’ grave doubts—which, in turn, confirms the righteousness of his brutal crusade. Neeson continues to sell himself as a symbol of violence’s efficacy and justness when doled out by someone with the proper know-how and facts.
That, on Monday, Neeson admitted he once thought about murdering a random black man in retaliation for the rape of his friend certainly casts this big-screen persona in a different, disturbing light. Cold Pursuit, however, doesn’t care about the ethicality of revenge. Instead, it mires Coxman in a predicament that involves not only Viking—a prissy, well-dressed vegan with no qualms about telling off his ex-wife (Julia Jones) or beheading lousy employees—but also a Native American cabal led by White Bull (Tom Jackson) that Viking suspects is behind his associates’ disappearances. This creates a warring-factions dynamic that, as in Moland’s prior film, unduly complicates the narrative. Yet it’s also here that Frank Baldwin’s script adds an extra layer to the proceedings, with Viking repeatedly making racist barbs against his “Indian” rivals (among others), and White Bull and his men repeatedly confronting their prejudiced historical oppression—be it a “Made in China” price tag on a ritzy shop’s Native American piece of clothing, or a henchman (Raoul Trujillo) bristling at a fancy hotel receptionist saying the visitors don’t have a “reservation,” to which he amusingly replies, “Do you have any idea what I can do to you on Yelp?”
Far more than a tossed-off running joke about Denver NFL quarterback greats, this Native American thread is Cold Pursuit’s most fruitful element. Both Coxman and White Bull are linked by their shared desire for retribution against Viking for murdering their sons—a comingling of personal and political grievances that adds weight to action that’s otherwise defined by nastiness with a dash of grim humor. Moland’s black comedy is of a bleak variety, marked by funereal title cards appearing to denote each victim’s passing, and offhand one-liners that, materializing amidst so much cheerlessness, are barely recognizable as jokes.
Although he wastes Dern in a role that’s too slight to warrant her participation in the first place, the director exhibits a knack for storytelling efficiency, as when he conveys the alienation between Coxman and Grace in brief shots of Neeson putting on cufflinks. And he handles the bloodier aspects of his business with no-nonsense punchiness, lingering just long enough to make each blow land with maximum impact. While it’s the center of the main character’s life—not to mention the prime hook of the film itself—Coxman’s industrial-grade snow-clearing apparatuses don’t fully seize the spotlight until the finale. That’s a welcome turn of events after a middle section that disperses its attention to the detriment of the story’s momentum. Moreover, it once again returns the focus to Neeson himself, whose countenance hides layers of grief and doubt beneath a grizzled exterior of stone-cold resolve. After a decade-plus of kick-ass endeavors, most following the tragic passing of his wife, he remains 21st century cinema’s preeminent powerful-and-protective father figure.