Liam Neeson's 'Cold Pursuit' Is Actually a Satisfying Action Comedy

'Cold Pursuit' is a fine addition to Liam Neeson’s action repertoire - but it's overshadowed by his racism scandal

Liam Neeson in "Cold Pursuit."
Doane Gregory / Summit Entertain

Winter, Liam Neeson and blood-drenched revenge tend to go hand in hand in the 21st century. The Irish film star, who made his name in dramas such as “Michael Collins” and “Schindler’s List,” made a dramatic career change in his mid-fifties. Since “Taken” (2008), the 66-year-old Neeson seems to be living a double life in Hollywood: esteemed dramatic actor and prolific action star. His new picture, “Cold Pursuit,” joins the growing list of action movies, but this time Neeson adds a comic infusion to the thriller persona he’s been cultivating.

“Cold Pursuit” is a remake of a Norwegian film, “Kraftidioten,” released five years ago. The director, Hans Petter Moland, thus enters the small club of filmmakers, among them Michael Haneke with his “Funny Games,” who have remade a film they’ve directed, this time for an English-speaking audience. The laid-back action and black humor were adapted specially for snow-covered Colorado by the scriptwriter, Frank Baldwin, and alongside entire scenes that were translated into English, new characters with an American twist have been added.

Neeson plays Nelson “Nels” Coxman, a snowplow driver who lives a simple life in a small, remote town that lives on ski tourism. His symbolic job enables him to remove obstacles from the path of the local population, and this allows everyone to pay him very little attention. He is the maintenance man of the invisible routine, the kind that’s noticed only when it disappears. Nels lives with his wife, Grace (Laura Dern), in a wooden house located in a pastoral setting. At the beginning of the movie, he receives the Citizen of the Year award and delivers a clumsy and confused speech about order. But at that very moment, his son dies mysteriously, and the event upends his tranquil existence.

The bereaved parents are informed that their son died of a drug overdose. The mourning drives Grace and Nels apart: she accepts the investigators’ insight that there’s no way to really know anyone, but Nels has a hard time coming to terms with what happened. And then, at a grim but characteristically comic moment, as the protagonist tries awkwardly to stick a gun barrel into his mouth, he suddenly and surprisingly discovers that his son was actually murdered. Armed with a hunting rifle, he sets out to take revenge on the man who killed his son. However, he quickly discovers that it’s a Sisyphean mission – as with a babushka in reverse, he finds that behind every criminal is a still bigger criminal.

Death as entertainment

The Sisyphus association is only heightened when, after every hit, there’s a short scene in which the tired, gasping hero has to lug another body to the edge of a waterfall on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Nels takes out hoodlums one after another, using creative methods. Without any special intention or self- awareness, he also sparks a war between two rival criminal organizations. The killing spree launched by the director, Moland, is intended to be violent, cruel and, above all, entertaining. Each case of death ends with a black screen as a eulogy, and there are plenty of them. Throughout, Moland follows the principal villain, known as “Viking” (Tom Bateman), who, like Nels, embodies the filmmakers’ effort to subvert the masculinity of action movies.

Viking is a typical murderous reprobate, but a criminal who steals cocaine from him angers him no less than trans fat. In fact, the very disappearance of his people in rapid succession only diverts his attention from an attempt to strike a balance between a career of crime and a vegan diet, while waging a child-custody battle with his ex-wife.

Compared to the host of action movies that have become identified with Neeson, such as the “Taken” series and “The Commuter,” the new picture would appear to offer the least amount of action. At least on paper. Despite its name, “Cold Pursuit” contains very few chases, and those that take place don’t generate much tension. There is hardly any face-to-face combat, and not many ear-splitting explosions. The pace is sometimes a bit slow, and Moland builds up tension only to curtail it. That’s a deliberate ploy, in aid of a comic effect, but it comes at the expense of the action.

The protagonist drives a not especially fast snowplow. He has one hunting rifle, and sometimes he’s accurate; at other times he misses. However, even though things move along somewhat lackadaisically, this is still one of the most violent films currently in commercial release. The director offsets the softened action with brutal violence and a notably large body count. The murders are graphic in some cases, and no one’s head is safe atop his neck.

The comedy complements the action in a way that few films have managed to do of late. Action comedies sometimes opt for a predictable, well-worn punchline, usually slapstick and with jokes about sex organs – though both can be found in “Cold Pursuit,” too. But Moland prefers more macabre gags. Like the action scenes, the humor is also restrained (insofar as restraint is possible in a murderous thriller). It shows there is more comic potential in silence than a swift kick to the groin. Even though there is an abundance of premature deaths, some appalling and funny, others just appalling, the director doesn’t take pleasure in the violence as such. Unlike most action and horror directors, he doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice tension in favor of humor, and vice versa. In some cases, he identifies comic potential in a shot to the face, and at other time he prefers to emphasize the difficulty – not so awful, but oppressive – of dragging a body. When it’s funnier, he doesn’t hesitate to leave the main part of a violent sequence outside the frame and in the realm of the viewer’s imagination.

For Moland, the balance between violence and humor oscillates like a pendulum throughout the film, and usually delivers the desired effect. The picture’s allure lies in the disparity between the abysmal seriousness that characterizes most of the characters, heroes and villains alike; the focus on the comic aspects of murder – and in the brilliant casting of Neeson. The action remains the basis for catching the viewer’s attention, but the punchline is like a healthy side dish. Think “Death Wish” with a bit of “Fargo” on the side.

“Cold Pursuit” is a fine addition to Liam Neeson’s action persona, and exemplifies another stage in its evolution. The Irish actor gained this status at a late stage in his career, and all the action movies he’s done since “Taken” have played on it. Almost all of them are forgettable, but they’ve helped transform Neeson into a suitable hero for the present era – a representative of the Old World who restored order to the world. Without special effects, just fists and a rifle. Action comedies, like romantic comedies, no longer get the sizable investment they once did, and Neeson is a good choice to revive them. We’ve already seen him as a father who avenges harm done to his children, time after time, and the transition to comedy only enhances the development.

Still, what’s likely to be remembered from the picture is the interview Neeson gave the British newspaper Independent. Asked about revenge, he talked about an incident when he was a young man and roamed the streets, after learning that a woman close to him had been raped, looking for a random black man to vent his aggression on.

Since the interview, he’s been at the center of broad public criticism, the red carpet has been pulled out from under him, and few people are dealing with plot, screenplay or performance. If we can put aside the actor in favor of the movie, “Cold Pursuit” isn’t an expensive, star-packed picture. It has no special effects department that could blow up a highrise, nor is there any desire to display collapsing towers in the heart of a big city.

The film offers unpretentious characters, with an interesting hero and a villain who misses the mark. The plot isn’t tight, loose ends aren’t closed and there are characters with no clear role. But the ambition is modest and the experience turns out to be rewarding. The action and the comedy move between an unconventional fusion of restraint and exaggeration, and the result is one of the most satisfying action comedies in recent years.