Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Cold Pursuit is the latest in the line of Liam Neeson thrillers where he finds himself caught up in a difficult situation that he must shoot, punch or stab his way out of. Most of these involve him protecting or avenging a child using any means necessary. This one is a Death Wish-esque, vigilante story, with him going after a gang run by a sadistic drug lord. However, it does not approach this material in the way you would predict. It is very darkly comedic and does not moralize or justify his actions. It does not make his deeds seem cool. It is a Liam Neeson action movie, though not quite the one I was expecting.
He stars as Nels Coxman, the man who cleans the roads in the (fictional) snowy resort town of Kehoe, Colorado. When his son is found dead of an overdose, he is convinced there was foul play. Soon, he learns his son stole from a drug lord and begins picking off members of the gang on his way to their boss. The major difference between this and Death Wish is that Nels never goes to the police. He does not give the justice system a chance to do its job. He is a good, kind, man, who quickly discovers he is capable of terrible things in the name of revenge. This movie does not attempt social commentary, though it does slyly comment on its own genre.
Cold Pursuit (110 minutes without the end credits) is filled with blood and violence (the worst of it takes place off-screen). It is also, as I wrote in the first paragraph, a dark comedy. Though not in anything resembling a straightforward way. There are no jokes and the characters are not particularly witty. Neeson’s Nels is so bent on revenge that his life becomes empty of everything else. He actually begins to enjoy it. His enemy, a psychotic control-freak nicknamed Viking, refers to old-fashioned things like honor and codes, but he does not follow them. It shows men in familiar roles before subtly suggesting those roles do not really exist for them. They do not do these things because they are honorable men, they do them because they are killers. It turns the very concept of the Liam Neeson revenge thriller on its head.
This probably does not sound funny. To be fair, it is doubtful you will laugh out loud. A lot of the wit is in the style, such as the graphics that pop up every time a character is killed. Or the end credits, which list all of the actors’ names and then has them fade from the screen in the order their character left the movie. The way Nels gets exhausted while trying to kill someone is kind of funny. I was also highly amused by Viking, who thinks he is a sophisticated crime boss, but is more ruthless and crazy than he is smart. It is a tremendously energetic performance from Tom Bateman, who goes back and forth between threatening to steal the movie and threatening to push it too far over the top.
Unlike a lot of action movies, Cold Pursuit does not pretend its characters are cool. They are sad and angry. It leans into that. By handling things matter-of-factly, it makes them look sort of ridiculous. That is where the humor comes from. It is a refreshing take on the genre (it is based on the 2014 Norwegian thriller In Order of Disappearance and even has the same director). It is not always successful. The uneven tone is sometimes distracting and the thinness of the characters hinders the impact of the final act. But you do not usually see risks in routine genre pictures. Especially ones that fit into an easy formula like “Liam Neeson winter action movie.”
3¼ out of 5
Liam Neeson as Nels Coxman
Tom Bateman as Viking
Domenick Lombardozzi as Mustang
Emmy Rossum as Kim Dash
John Doman as John Gipsky
Julia Jones as Aya
William Forsythe as Brock
Tom Jackson as White Bull
Directed by Hans Petter Moland
Screenplay by Frank Baldwin