Tom Bateman and Liam Neeson in Cold Pursuit
Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance was one of my great surprises of 2014. What appeared on the surface to be a simple revenge movie was actually a fairly canny and stylish parody of that kind of movie. It poked holes in the vengeful-dad genre by essentially making the vengeful dad a supporting character in his own story; his vengeance almost immediately triggers a deadly gang war, and what often passes as the ultimate act of self-sacrifice in these kinds of movies really only serves as tinder for more tragedy. On paper, In Order of Disappearance sounds at best like a passable Coen derivative: ironic ultra-violence, wackiness, snow… but what really transpires is a kind of deadpan Nordic humour that transcends the more familiar elements of its story.
Of course, remaking a movie that skews the Liam Neeson-dominated genre by casting Neeson in the role is laying it on a little thick. There’s not much difference between Nels Coxman, the character Neeson plays in Cold Pursuit (which is also directed by Moland), and all of the other taciturn, monosyllabic, revenge-obsessed old men he plays in films like Non-Stop or The Commuter or the Taken series. All of them are sort of a platonic dad ideal, a man with convictions but apparently few opinions or desires — in most of these films, it’s as if grief and misery actually kick him alive for the first time in years. In Cold Pursuit, that’s taken to such an extreme that Neeson becomes a bystander in his own story. If most movies about revenge come to the conclusion that revenge is not nearly as sweet as has previously been claimed, Cold Pursuit posits that revenge is not even yours if you’re the one who wants it most.
Coxman works as a snowplow driver in a profoundly snowy Colorado resort town some three hours from Denver. He’s a man of extremely few words, barely acknowledging his wife (Laura Dern) or grown son Kyle (Micheál Richardson, Neeson’s real-life son) and seemingly having very little going on besides his meditative snow-plowing job. One morning, Kyle turns up dead; it seems he’s died of a drug overdose, a fact that Nels is completely unable to accept. After his wife leaves him for refusing to understand that they perhaps didn’t know their son as well as they thought, Nels begins his own investigation. He finds that Kyle was likely killed as part of a botched drug smuggling operation; as a worker on the tarmac of a small local airport, he’d somehow gotten wrapped up in the business of Viking (Tom Bateman), a millionaire playboy/drug dealer who controls the Colorado drug trade. Nels takes out a couple of his henchmen as retribution, but this act of vengeance only leads Viking to assume that his men were killed by another local drug lord, White Bull (Tom Jackson), who soon arrives in town with his men in tow.
Though Nels is clearly the protagonist of the film, he has about as much screen time as Viking, a prissy-yet-hyper-violent vegan crime lord who shoots his own employees in the head but forbids his eight-year-old son from eating cookies. It’s a patently ridiculous character that works chiefly because the rest of the film plays it so dry and deadpan; Bateman is just a notch above what he should be in terms of intensity and bug-eyed scenery chewing, which hits the perfect note to differentiate him from any number of wacky / eccentric bad guys in movies like this.
It’s hard to describe exactly what Cold Pursuit does differently from your average Elmore Leonard / post-Tarantino ironic crime caper. I think it ultimately comes down to a sort of calm and practical version of carnage that Moland puts forth. It’s violent and brutal and funny and meditative in equal measure and — crucially — rarely all at once. Though bringing the film Stateside immediately makes it feel more familiar (a pair of cops played by Emmy Rossum and John Doman are particularly Fargo-esque), the film retains a kind of glacial Scandinavian quality. Moland shoots the violence quickly and brutally; sometimes, he doesn’t bother to show it at all. Most American remakes of films tend to really overemphasize the American elements of the story in translation; Cold Pursuit feels downright European in comparison to the slapdash Neeson vehicle it could’ve been.
Granted, even if you take Cold Pursuit as the satire it clearly is, it doesn’t have that much to say about the genre it’s aping. Revenge is a dish best served cold, even when it turns into a murderous clusterfuck, and part of the fun is watching Moland contradict himself by setting up these rote “revenge won’t fix you” beats and then have so much fun devising brutal ways to exact said revenge. In other words, it’s a good, well-thought out, mostly non-fascist, somewhat sympathetic to Native Americans (let’s not get ahead of ourselves here – and besides, a frankly embarrassing “nagging Asian wife” character pops up, so representation isn’t exactly a concern) version of something you’ve seen before. Considering that the only way these will ever stop is if Neeson were to say something extremely stupid in an interview and never live it down, this might even come across as going out with a bang. ■
Cold Pursuit opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 8. Watch the trailer here: