So, despite the controversy over recent statements made by Liam Neeson I still made an effort to go out and see his latest movie “Cold Pursuit” because, well, I mostly enjoy his action movies even the bad ones, plain and simple. Putting aside the controversy, I had always planned on seeing this film this weekend regardless, so my review today is simply meant to look at this movie for what it is and not to criticize it for its lead actor’s statements outside of the production. Liam Neeson has certainly reinvented himself over the years staring in ten previous action hits (including three “Taken” movies) and his eleventh action film mixes dark comedy with plenty of thrills to give a little different kind of experience than what we might be used from his genre pieces. This movie is based on the 2014 Norwegian film “Order of Disappearance”, a title that is referenced in the end credits, and serves as the Hollywood directorial debut for Hans Petter Moland who directed the original version as well. Is “Cold Pursuit” an action thriller worth the time? Let’s dive in and get to the review.
“Cold Pursuit” focuses on Nelson Coxman (Liam Neeson), a snowplow driver in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Kehoe who is named the town’s Citizen of the Year. Unfortunately, the same night as his ceremony Coxman’s son dies of a heroin overdose, creating suspicion from Nelson who refuses to believe his son was a druggie. While Nelson’s wife Grace (Laura Dern) is traumatized, Nelson sets out for revenge tracking down the men responsible for his son’s death bringing him in direct conflict with drug lord Trevor “Viking” Colcote (Tom Bateman) and his numerous thugs. Nelson begins to take out the drug cartel members one by one leading Viking to believe the killings are being perpetrated by a rival gang of Native American dealers, creating a drug war. As Nelson’s vigilante actions unintentionally create a ripple effect of violence and mayhem, local police detective Kimberly Dash (Emmy Rossum) takes it upon herself to investigate the disappearances and violence plaguing the small tourist town.
“Cold Pursuit” isn’t just a garden variety Liam Neeson action flick. While it’s not uncommon for us to see the actor portray an aged man with special skills, this is the first time I remember him playing someone who isn’t really built or trained to be a vigilante or badass making this one of Neeson’s most interesting action movie roles in some time. A lot of times Neeson is handed a character with an backstory justifying his physical abilities or his involvement in a convoluted plot. Not here though. Neeson’s Nelson Coxman is simply a father who has lost his son and after lucking into information about the truth of the situation he decides he has nothing to lose so he sets out to take revenge even if he’ll die trying. We see through sly prop placement that he’s an experienced hunter and small details like his lack of gloves in the slow show his durability but otherwise he’s not a trained officer or agent like many past Neeson characters are. His quest for revenge is set up by an attempt at suicide immediately cuing the audience in to the fact that this man is not the manly tough guy we’ve come to expect from the actor, but rather someone who has a mental break that results in his violent actions. If he dies he’s going to die getting his revenge and his peace of mind and that’s all he wants. Despite not having the same crazy backstory or even the heightened stakes of past Neeson characters, Nelson Coxman may just be the most genuinely human character Neeson has brought to life in his action film career.
Most of the other performances in the film are rather small, but they get the job done with Emmy Rossum being a standout as the detective hot on the case. I mean big or small there’s not a lot of performances in this film that will blow you away, but you can tell the actors are invested and there are a few larger-than-life personalities mixed in to the numerous drug cartel members that Coxman hunts down. For me though the role that stands out for the wrong reasons is the movie’s main villain Viking, played by Tom Bateman. The problem with this character isn’t Bateman’s acting per say because he is believably intimidating. The problem is how the character is written. This movie tries way to hard to sell this villain. Bateman does well with the material he’s given, but what I think was a genuine attempt to provide a developed character for Viking unfortunately results in an often over-the-top bad man with no redeemable qualities. He’s abusive to his ex-wife. He forces his son to stick to a very specific diet and is more than willing to kill when anyone gets in his way. He’s even something of a hypocrite, killing one person for his lack of loyalty but then later ordering someone else dead despite their loyalty to him. While I think all of this was meant to give us someone complex and unique it only left me confused and unsure what to make of him. I complain a lot (as do many critics) about a lack of depth with movie villains but in Viking’s case I think this is a situation where the screenwriter, and maybe the actor, were trying a little to hard to give us a villain we will remember and went way over the mark.
As an action thriller “Cold Pursuit” is a solid film balancing its brutal violence with a neat, if hollow story of revenge. It can be a little chaotic to follow at times, especially as the narrative shifts to involving multiple drug cartels instead of just the one drug ring Nelson sets his eyes on but this keeps “Cold Pursuit” from feeling like a retread of every other Neeson action flick. “Cold Pursuit” finds its own identity by seamlessly blending some very effective dark humor with some of the most bluntly violent beat downs Neeson has ever delivered in his action career. I mean he just whales on his victims most of the time but because he’s an inexperienced killer we also get to see him run out of breath because he’s an old man or unsuccessfully choke a guy to death only to quickly try to finish the job. Normally comedy and violent action shouldn’t blend this well, but “Cold Pursuit” gives us a picture that will make you laugh one moment at the ridiculousness of it all and gasp the next moment at how extreme things can get. It’s pure competently made action entertainment that doesn’t ask to be taken too seriously, but demands your respect and attention the whole way through nonetheless. I had a genuinely good time watching it and found it to be a well paced two hours of escapism.
However, “Cold Pursuit” lacks something very important to its story and that’s heart. “Cold Pursuit” is one of Neeson’s best action movie’s to date for many reasons, but the one area where it is inferior to almost all of his past genre films is in the emotional resonance of the story. The narrative moves quickly at the start, barely establishing the connection between the parents and the soon-to-be-dead son leaving the emotional impact of the death a little dry. There is some effort to try and drive home the impact of the loss like Laura Dern’s Grace Coxman, the mother, feeling like she didn’t even know her son because he died from an overdose or Neeson’s character attempting suicide before deciding on his more vengeful solution to his suffering, but these subplots feel rushed and inconsequential to the final story. They’re gone just as fast as they’re worked into the narrative. Sure later on in the movie Nelson bonds with another young character helping give viewers a small peak into the hole left in his life from the loss of his own son, but in the end much of the emotional substance of this picture is overshadowed by the action and, in most cases, it’s downplayed to the point where it’s nothing more than a simple motivator where it could have and should have meant something more to both the viewers and the characters. I couldn’t feel or embrace any grief or inner turmoil because it felt like all the movie wanted to do was get to the stuff we all came to see, Liam Neeson kicking ass. For that it’s a fun film, but an unfortunately hollow experience that offers little substance beyond its blend of action and humor.
To conclude, “Cold Pursuit” is an awesome action thriller with plenty of dark comedy mixed in for spice to provide for a great two hours of entertainment. It’s not perfect though. The lack of emotional resonance can spoil the experience and make it feel really dry at times and the villain is way overdone, but despite its flaws “Cold Pursuit” does more than enough to establish itself a one of the better Liam Neeson action flicks. I loved its sense of humor, I loved that Neeson’s character is a little more raw and less experienced, and I genuinely enjoyed the chaos of the inter-cartel rivalry that adds a little more substance to the action than your garden variety genre romp. Overall I’d highly recommend it if for nothing more than the quality escapism and perfect blending of genres and tones. It might need a little more heart to truly be considered a great film, but “Cold Pursuit” makes the best of what it does offer and that’s more than enough to make it a very good movie.