COLD PURSUIT. Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Emmy Rossum, William Forsythe, Tom Bateman. Directed by Hans Petter Moland. 119 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong themes and violence).
When ‘Cold Pursuit’ started, I quietly prepared myself for another film drawn along the lines of Liam Neeson’s recent, low-tier thrillers, movies like ‘Run All Night’ and ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’ that the gruff Northern Irishmen has been reliably churning out since breaking out as an action hero with ‘Taken’ in 2008. It was in this mindset that I was firmly set when the movie’s first moment of pitch-black humour landed, catching me and the entire audience utterly off guard. We sat in confused silence as onscreen the body of Neeson’s character’s son slowly rose into the shot, an uninterested mortician slowly and squeakily pumping the hydraulic jack fixed to the base of the morgue tray, until the corpse arrived at waist level. The moment was drawn out well past comfort and into the absurd. With Neeson and Laura Dern looking on as bereaved parents, most Neeson revenge flicks would have turned this into a fire-and-brimstone moment, sending the distraught father unrelentingly on the trail of those responsible. However, as the first nervous guffaws rang out from around my packed preview screening, I realised that this was most definitely not another cookie-cutter Neeson movie. Instead, director Hans Petter Moland, remaking his own Norwegian language film ‘In Order of Disappearance’, has crafted a superb black comedy. It is liberally sprinkled with bloody violence and many of its laughs are as dark as its midnight snowscapes, but for those whom can stomach its bloodshed, it’s a blast from beginning to shocking end.
Neeson plays Nels Coxman, a snowplough driver in the Colorado ski resort town of Kehoe. We watch his wife Grace (Larua Dern) help him put on his cufflinks to attend an upscale civic event, at which Nels is named the Kehoe Citizen of the Year. The next time we see Nels donning his dark suit, he is dressing for the funeral of his son, Kyle (Micheál Richardson), who died in Denver of a heroin overdose. This time, Grace doesn’t even offer to assist him. Nels, who knows in his marrow that Kyle was not a “druggie”, becomes determined to get to the bottom of his demise. Kyle’s friend-cum-colleague Dante (Wesley MacInnes) gives Nels the name of “Speedo”, a small-time local gangster involved in the cocaine-smuggling operation that led to Kyle’s death, and Nels sets off to Denver on Speedo’s tail. It’s with no fanfare or uncertainty that Nels exacts his brutal revenge on Speedo (Michael Eklund). The violence, when it comes, is bloody but unvarnished, and Nels views his acts matter-of-factly, almost like another job that simply requires doing. While Neeson plays Nels with a weary determination, Moland extracts more unexpected laughs from his leading man, with Nels momentarily surprised to hear Speedo coughing back to life before launching back into his strangulation. This wicked, macabre sense of humour elevates everything about the film, lending its revenge tale an unusual but enjoyable sense of play and its emotional beats greater gravitas through their contrast.
Before dying, Speedo gave Nels the name of “Limbo” (Bradley Stryker), the crim on the next rung up the ladder, and so Nels continues his gory climb towards the crooks at the top, those calling the shots in the drug-smuggling operation that ordered his son’s murder. However, when “Viking” (Tom Bateman), the psycopathic leader of this ring, discovers that a few of his men have gone missing, he figures that it must be the result of a local gang of Native Americans trying to squeeze in on his turf. Viking, for whom ‘Lord of the Flies’ is more of a self-help guide than an allegory, was taught an old school criminal code by his crime lord father. He retaliates in kind, unwittingly igniting a war with an innocent albeit ruthlessly protective criminal operation. While Viking and “White Bull” (Tom Jackson), the leader of the Native Americans, continue with their escalating acts of violence against one another, Nels carries on with his own agenda.
As Nels’ continues his quest and bodies wrapped in chicken wire begin to pile up at the bottom of an enormous waterfall near his home, a gulf begins to deepen between him and Grace. Dern’s role is a little underwritten, with Grace quickly fading from the narrative altogether. In her place arrives a different (and admittedly more interesting) female character (anything to balance out the machismo energy drenching the rest of the picture). Rookie Kehoe cop Kim (Emmy Rossum, elevating what was likely a generic role on paper) winds up investigating the string of deaths in their small precinct with her veteran partner Gip (John Doman, doing similarly strong work). The pair have contrasting reactions to the turf war boiling over onto their streets: Kim is excited to finally see some action, while Gip is used to a look-the-other-way approach to policing. As these disparate threads converge in Kehoe for the climactic showdown, no one will be left unaffected by the chain of events that Nels set off with his first steps into the criminal underworld.
Screenwriter Frank Baldwin, who adapted the original screenplay by Kim Fupz Aakeson, has written a twisted take on small-town criminality that could stand alongside ‘Fargo’ in the genre pantheon. Whenever you think that the film is about to go left, the script jags to the right. Key to this is Viking, whose unpredictability is spectacularly brought to life by Tom Bateman’s excellent, hopefully star-making turn. Viking’s actions are morally reprehensible, from threatening the mother of the son on which he dotes, to flipping on a deal on a whim, yet Bateman has an undeniable charm and his performance is so enjoyable that you just want to keep watching him, and you almost want him to succeed. He explodes into the frame and grabs the reigns of the film, but Baldwin’s canny writing keeps managing to wrest control away with surprise after surprise.
There are so many throwaway moments to pique your curiosity that you can barely keep up; for instance, two of Viking’s henchmen are barely revealed to be in a same-sex relationship before Baldwin is off on another intriguing thread. Tonally, this movie shouldn’t work. Things like Nels sharing a laugh with one of his victims mid-murder, the duo pausing to laugh about how Nels is too old to be beating up crims, they simply shouldn’t gel. However, the assured direction of Moland allows ‘Cold Pursuit’ to successfully ride its sharp tonal shifts with ease. It’s genuinely surprising how cleanly it manages to land its laughs and thrills right next to one another. A few of the film’s death scenes, for instance, are hauntingly beautiful, with little grace notes that lend pause and generate genuine sympathy, while others are played purely for laughs, yet they never jar. Add in the terrific, folksy yet ethereal score by George Fenton and Philip Øgaard’s crisp lensing of the snowy mountains and well-styled interiors, and Moland has made ‘Cold Pursuit’ a real treat on every level.
I want to reiterate that this is not a film for every palette. However, fans of dark comedies with a mature tolerance for the kind of violence that a Liam Neeson film usually entails will find this to be a demented blast.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out February 7.