COLD PURSUIT – which could be called HELLY HANSEN PRESENTS ‘COLD PURSUIT’ in my opinion – is an odd duck of a Liam Neeson vehicle. His character Nelson “Nels” Coxman is a man with a very particular set of skills, but they mostly involve driving a snow plow. He lives a simple life in a big house in a tiny ski resort town 3 and a quarter miles from Denver, Colorado. It’s one of those places where people have to be kinda rugged but they’re also laid back and individualistic. It’s always cold outside so they mostly just find ways to relax in their big houses. Nels’s wife Grace (Laura Dern, WILD AT HEART) smokes a joint while cooking up some meat from the reindeer that Nels and their son Kyle (Micheal Richardson, VOX LUX) hunted a while back.
Nels is a little nervous about having to make a speech after winning Citizen of the Year. Otherwise they seem to have a nice comfortable lifestyle going when all the sudden Kyle turns up dead – we know he was murdered by drug dealers, but the coroner (Jim Shield, SHANGHAI NOON, who looks like a more hard living Chris Pine) says it was a heroin overdose. Nels is so broken up he puts a shotgun in his mouth but when he’s interrupted by Kyle’s bloodied and apologetic friend Dante (Wesley MacInnes, POWER RANGERS) and learns what really happened, it’s not long before he’s sawing off said shotgun to fit in his jacket and go trying to find the people responsible.
Congratulations to Michael Eklund for getting a memorable scene as the eminently-hatable “Speedo,” the first guy Nels goes after. I know this guy from DTV movies (SMOKIN’ ACES 2, HUNT TO KILL, TACTICAL FORCE, THE MARINE 3, SEE NO EVIL 2) and he’s in several Uwe Bolle movies, so this is kinda high class for him.
Nels is not a mastermind, he’s just blunt. Since he was gonna kill himself anyway, guys pointing guns at him doesn’t ever stop him from popping them in the nose. The violence that involves fists or weapons is of the harsh and bloody, maybe this is too much style rather than the type that’s supposed to be cool, but it’s generally in a darkly humorous context. There’s also, of course, some unsanctioned uses of the snowplow, which is obviously gonna have a little sick joy to it. And it’s a comical premise that Nels’s actions cause a deadly gang war completely by accident. He has no clue about playing one side against the other – I’m not sure he even is aware of different sides – it just happens when the arrogant kingpin Viking (Tom Bateman, SNATCHED) jumps to the wrong conclusions. Every time a character dies their name is written on a title card in memoriam, and the names start to pile up as the situation gets out of control.
That’s also what happened in the 2014 Norwegian version, IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE, from the same director, Hans Petter Moland (ZERO KELVIN). Turns out it was a mistake to watch the original in preparation for COLD PURSUIT. If I hadn’t seen it I think I would’ve gotten more enjoyment out of this as a Neeson joint where his character is a little different and there’s a quirky sense of humor with the supporting characters and the way the conflict escalates out of the villain’s incompetence. I did enjoy it, but I thought maybe it would be more of a souped up Neesonification for American audiences. And I don’t know if such a thing could ever work, but it would feel more like a new movie than this slight remix. Because it’s so similar to the first telling I couldn’t stop missing the actors who originally played the protagonist and antagonist.
Pal Sverre Hagen, who played “Count,” the Norwegian version of “Viking,” is more like a young, tall Christophe Waltz. He seems less capable of filling his father’s shoes, and more arrogantly deluded that he can. His anger is more of a passive-aggressive whininess that eventually boils over – funnier and scarier.
I always like Neeson’s characters, but Stellan Skarsgard’s Nils Dickman, the original Nels Coxman, is unmatchable. Though Neeson is playing a more introverted character than usual, and though I think Moland intentionally emphasizes the weirdness of his nose and forehead in profile shots, he still has many opportunities to speak in his usual booming voice and seem like a normal Neeson character. Sometimes while threatening his way up the drug dealer ladder it only seems different from a TAKEN because he’s not wearing a leather jacket.
I think Skarsgard’s inscrutable version works much better – he’s such a quiet blank, unable to articulate much with words or even expressions. He’s rugged in a normal old-man-who-works-outdoors sort of way, but such an anonymous blank that no one sees it coming when he’s fearless enough to come after them and succeeds in overpowering them. Since Neeson does not approach the character with the same minimalism it feels weird whenever it comes back to him after long stretches focusing on the gang, like they forgot to give Liam Neeson enough scenes in a Liam Neeson movie.
The rest of the cast was also great in the original, but their variations here went down easier for me. It was cool to see Domenick Lombardozzi from The Wire as a more macho American version of the likable #1 henchman. John Doman, also from The Wire, plays a friendly local cop who’s partnered with Detective Kim Dash (Emmy Rossum, MYSTIC RIVER), the one cop on the verge of figuring out what’s going on here. She takes police work more seriously but he’s cool because he convinces her not to hassle snowboarders about public joint smoking. (This might be the first movie I’ve seen that acknowledges weed being legal in parts of the U.S.)
I thought Dominic West was also in it but upon further analysis it was the similar-looking Canadian actor Aleks Paunovic (DRIVEN TO KILL).
Dern has her own take on the wife, who again seems completely correct in being angry at him for his lack of communication after the death of their son. Her belief that he refuses to come to terms with their son being a drug addict is factually incorrect, but completely reasonable. If the way she tells him she’s leaving him was the same in the original, it must not have made an impression on me like this did. Man, that was cold, and weird. One of my favorite touches in this movie.
Some excellent casting is William Forsythe (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, STONE COLD) as Nels’ estranged brother Brock, a former member of the gang, who he goes to for help. He still has a wife (Elizabeth Thai, True Justice) who is correctly angry about Nels visiting even though she’s mistaken that he’s one of his crime friends.
The women are more combative in the original, and I think they have every right to be. So it feels like a little bit of capitulating to American tastes that they’re nicer in this one. Viking’s ex-wife Aya (Julia Jones, HELL RIDE, JONAH HEX, WIND RIVER) only aggravates him by being correct, not by pushing his buttons the way the Norwegian one did so spectacularly. And she must’ve seen the original and known what was coming because SPOILER in the shocking moment where he explodes and hits her she ducks it and grabs him by the nuts! Like some Nicolas Cage in NEXT shit.
Adapter Frank Baldwin (a newcomer who will soon be writing a TV series version of THE WARRIORS) does come up with some unique settings and confrontations for Nels. Viking owns a night club – I like that Nels casually strolls onto a dance floor through crowds of various subcultures wearing his outdoor gear including giant parka with reflector strips.
In this version the henchmen still feed Fruit Loops to the boss’s son Ryan (Nicholas Holmes, “Young Norman,” Bates Motel), but the parents don’t have any arguments about that specific product. Viking does demand a certain strict diet and stop the kid from eating cookies, but it’s his own weird thing that annoys the ex (in the original I got the impression it was mostly a show for her, to make it seem like he was a good parent).
Baldwin turned the Serbian gang into a Native American one, which mostly works but unfortunately seemed to bring out the racism in my audience, judging by the laughter at the non-jokey mention of casinos. They also loved the dumb joke where a Native character says to “make the Indian do it” and then it turns out there’s one guy in the gang who appears to descend from India. Get it?
Unfortunately the funny neighbor character whose line about immigration I was hoping would carryover does not have an equivalent in this version.
If I’m not mistaken, it was a new addition that Nels and Brock’s dad was also in the gang and worked with Viking’s dad. This further emphasizes that it’s a movie about fathers and sons. Nels is avenging his dead son, with one foot in the criminal world because his brother followed their dad into it. Viking is struggling to live up to his dad, he’s also a shitty father to a gifted son. The drug lord White Bull (Tom Jackson, Shining Time Station), like Nels, has his only son killed by Viking, and tries to get back at him through his own son. And I suppose Nels proves that he’s the best of them by becoming a temporary father figure to Ryan, though the kid is smart enough to identify his feelings as Stockholm Syndrome. Moland toys a little bit with allowing the protagonist’s behavior to be creepy. I think we’re supposed to root for him and then occasionally feel uncomfortable with ourselves.
Which, uh, brings up the current event thing I feel obligated to address. Maybe you’re reading this in the future and this has all been forgotten, or maybe COLD PURSUIT will turn out to be the movie that’s only remembered as the one that Neeson was promoting when he said that one thing at a junket. In a strange moment of unsolicited honesty during promotional duties, Neeson told an interviewer a story he said he’d never told anyone before about a time around 40 years ago when someone he cared about was raped, and it inspired him to stroll black neighborhoods with a club hoping to get in a fight and beat someone to death. He presented it as a story about the ugliness of violent revenge – clearly a confession of something in his past he found shameful. But he didn’t seem to fully take into account that he was revealing more than just a lust for retribution in his younger self.
In DEATH WISH, Paul Kersey takes out his anger on random criminals, genuinely bad people unrelated to the crime against his family, and in the end I think we’re not even supposed to agree with that. In Neeson’s story (perhaps remembered or explained wrong), he supposedly asks the race of the rapist, then wants to take out his anger on a random person of the same race. And unfortunately even in a later apology he didn’t seem to fully grasp the need to acknowledge this literally racist attitude and how he hopefully moved beyond it.
I don’t know if that too-much-information is gonna make some of his movies play differently than they used to. Luckily here he’s strictly avenging white people directly involved with the crime he’s avenging, which off the top of my head I think is what most of his action movies are like. Unfortunately there is a tone deaf scene he’s not in where the black hitman The Eskimo (Arnold Pinnock, BAIT, EXIT WOUNDS) awkwardly uses ebonics just so Viking can “correct” his English, like when he says “ax” and Viking says “ASK!” I figured the Norwegian director didn’t understand how this would come off to us, but of course my “Indian casino = laugh” guys loved that part.
I don’t know if it was that audience that made the scene where two male gangsters are revealed to be lovers feel like it could’ve been intended as shock value. To their credit, they behaved themselves. In the original it’s a clearly humanizing moment that made the characters more sympathetic and gave a reason for more tension between the kingpin and his men, something that’s not as apparent in this version. So I think Moland is innocent on that one.
Despite my misgivings, I think you can tell by my description that this is not a typical movie. I definitely recommend COLD PURSUIT if you are in the category of people who 1) have not banned Liam Neeson from your current entertainment diet and 2) have not yet seen IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE. And then after that you should see IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE.