Thanks to the worst publicity interview ever, in which Liam Neeson opened up about that week as a youth he spent as a virtual Bernhard Goetz — walking around in the hopes of beating up a black person in some form of revenge (don’t worry, he’s changed!) — a popular moviegoing ritual has been tainted.
Yes, he’s a man with a very special set of skills, and one of them is punctuality.
Next on the calendar: Cold Pursuit, just as gruesome, but a little more stylish and offbeat — a darkly comic tundra noir that exists tonally somewhere between Fargo and Elmore Leonard.
Neeson is Nels, a snowplow driver in the mountains of Colorado (actually Alberta), a stoic man who wins a good citizen award, and when he’s told he’ll have to say a few words, he wants to know how many. Nels is more of a doer, and when his son dies of an apparent heroin overdose, he sets about identifying the supply chain of dealers, middlemen, and money men, and methodically starts eliminating them.
It starts simply enough: Nels pulverizes a few low-level drug dealers, but efforts to expand his zone of revenge have complications. Local crime factions start blaming each other for the sudden increase in dead dealers, and soon the small, snowy tourist town is at the center of a bloody turf war. Even the habitually disinterested local police officer (John Doman) is forced to pay attention (Emmy Rossum is his more gung-ho partner).
Cold Pursuit is sometimes more graphic than it needs to be, which seems like a silly thing to say about a movie that features the violent deaths of several dozen characters. But it’s most effective when deploying a restrained, deadpan tone in the face of the absurdly high body count — each death is marked by a title card reporting the name, nickname, and life span of the deceased.
With Cold Pursuit, director Hans Petter Moland is remaking his own Norwegian movie (In Order of Disappearance), and not everything crosses the Atlantic smoothly — a Serbian gang becomes Native American, and incidental characters meant to be quirky struggle to break the orbit of caricature. Still, Moland has a knack for atmosphere and the evocative image — phlegmatic Nels throwing another drug dealer into the gorge, or knocking another victim’s car off the road with his mammoth, rumbling plow.
I haven’t seen the original, so I don’t know if it shares this movie’s interest in wealth and class. Nels is a working man in a posh resort town that caters to pampered tourists and bows to moneyed interests (which Moland underlines with mordant visuals), but Nels is unbowed, and the movie takes pleasure in the swath he cuts through men who think themselves insulated by power.
His ultimate target is a smarmy crime boss with bespoke suits and matching sneer, played by Tom Bateman as though he might be related to American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. He makes his money from heroin, heedless of its damage, yet does not allow his own son to ingest high fructose corn syrup.
He’s the sort of character who exists to be killed by Liam Neeson in February, although this all would have been more digestible before Neeson began reminiscing about his racist vigilante phase. He’s apologized, perhaps to forestall the possibility that in the future, these movies will star Christopher Plummer.
Directed by Hans Petter Moland. With Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman, John Doman, Emmy Rossum, and Laura Dern. Distributed by Summit.
Parents’ guide: R (violence)
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.