Joining the small club of international filmmakers who’ve remade their own pictures for English-speaking audiences, Norway’s Hans Petter Moland takes In Order of Disappearance, his well-received 2014 black comedy starring Stellan Skarsgard, and adapts it for Liam Neeson as Cold Pursuit. Those hearing its logline — Neeson goes on a killing spree to find the crime lord who killed his son — will expect something far different from this wry revenge story, which offers ample violence but is not another post-Taken piece of grim vigilante wish-fulfillment. Confused expectations may put a damper on box office, but the film should have a longer life than many of Neeson’s more generic action outings.
Neeson plays snowplow driver Nels Coxman, a road-salt-of-the-earth character who keeps the routes clear around a Rocky Mountain ski town. (The pic, whose beautifully snowy settings might seem more Nordic than Coloradan, was shot in Alberta.) He’s being given a Citizen of the Year award when we meet him, and his modest speech is ironic, given the path events will soon take him down: He says he succeeded in life simply because “I picked a good road early and I stayed on it.”
A very fun bloodbath that hits a speed bump or two near the end.
Then he learns that his son has died of a heroin overdose. Nels and wife Grace (Laura Dern) are dumbfounded: “Kyle wasn’t a druggie,” Nels insists, but investigators see it as a closed case. Nels is about to end his suffering with a shotgun when he gets a clue that he was right: Kyle was an innocent casualty in a friend’s misbehavior, killed on the orders of a regional drug smuggler.
Nels wastes no time in beginning his detective work — he soon finds the first link in a chain of colorfully nicknamed thugs, gets the name of that man’s superior and kills him without asking for more info. But the film itself is far less hurried, moving around elliptically before and after the action begins. We start hanging out with the man who will prove to be responsible for Nels’ pain — “The Viking,” played with dickish relish by Tom Bateman — but the focus here is less on crime-flick plotting than on seeing what a condescending control freak he is. He bickers with his estranged wife and micromanages the diet of his son, Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), gives the kid bad advice about bullies and complains that Ryan hasn’t yet read the book he gave him, Lord of the Flies. “All the answers you need are in that book,” The Viking gloats.
By the time Nels’ gumshoe work gets close to The Viking, we’ll actually be invested in him and many of the people around him — and also in the crew of The Viking’s rival White Bull (Tom Jackson), the small-town cops trying to solve a sudden string of crimes (Emmy Rossum plays the go-getter to John Doman’s laissez-faire old-timer) and so on. Though the ensemble sprawls, casting director Avy Kaufman’s excellent work means that many of these bit players make a memorable impression. They’re helped immensely by Frank Baldwin’s crackling dialogue, as he adapts the original script by Kim Fupz Aakeson. At its best, the assortment of colorful characters recalls an Elmore Leonard novel — though the film doesn’t push its quirks as aggressively as some Leonard-influenced crime pics have.
Nels takes no care in his amateur sleuthing. If he learns that his target hangs out in a ritzy nightclub, he just walks right through the door in his heavy snow gear (conspicuously, he prefers Norway’s winter-wear manufacturer Helly Hansen) and confronts whatever sharp-dressed goon gets in his way. Picking villains off one by one, Nels gives the film an impressive body count (each death scene is followed by a headstone-like title card); but though some of these scenes are comically shocking and some are grisly, Moland doesn’t seem to fetishize them as a cheeky horror film would. He’s focused on the endgame.
You wouldn’t necessarily guess that focus, given the second half of the pic’s increasing sense of bloat. However enjoyable its little bits of color are, the two-hour film could have trimmed many of them and probably dropped a minor storyline or two. The action never stops being fun, and it eventually does make excellent use of the heavy machinery Nels’ job requires. Cold Pursuit just gets a little winded, like a 66-year-old action hero working hard at high altitudes.
Production companies: Mas, Paradox
Cast: Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman, Tom Jackson, Emmy Rossum, Domenick Lombardozzi, Julia Jones, John Doman, Laura Dern
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Screenwriter: Frank Baldwin
Producers: Finn Gjerdrum, Stein B. Kvae, Michael Shamberg, Ameet Shukla
Executive producers: Michael Dreyer, Shana Eddy-Grouf, Paul Schwartzman
Director of photography: Philip Ogaard
Production designer: Jorgen Stangebye Larsen
Costume designer: Anne Pedersen
Editor: Nicolaj Monberg
Composer: George Fenton
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Rated R, 118 minutes