For much of the last decade, it’s become an annual January/February ritual: a crime thriller starring Liam Neeson slips into theaters during what is usually one of the most barren corridors of the year in terms of cinematic quality. This all started back in 2008 with Taken, which became such a monster hit that studios have been trying variations on the same theme ever since — Neeson as an everyman/cop/government agent (retired or otherwise) who finds himself up against an extraordinarily dangerous killer/plot/conspiracy and must use his wits/common sense/special skills to survive and win.
The trailer for his new thriller, Cold Pursuit, is designed to make viewers think that the film is more of the same — lots of quick cuts of Neeson fighting and shooting and running and driving, all guaranteed to activate memories of that past Neeson actioner you might have enjoyed — but the truth is that Cold Pursuit is somewhat different and somewhat smarter. The Commuter, this ain’t.
For one thing, Cold Pursuit is a remake: it’s the English-language version of a 2014 Norwegian film called In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten in Norwegian) that was directed by Hans Petter Moland and starred Stellan Skarsgard. Moland has taken on directorial duties for the English-language edition as well, working from an Americanized screenplay by Frank Baldwin. Second, this isn’t a straight crime drama in which Neeson relentlessly mows down his adversaries — there is plenty of that, but it’s all flavored with a macabre, quirky sense of humor and peopled with oddball characters that Moland has apparently ported over from his original film.
Neeson plays Nels Coxman (and yes, there are jokes about the name too), a man of few words who lives in Kehoe, Colorado, where his job is to keep the snowbound roads plowed so that high-end vacationers can make their way to the luxurious ski resort that is the center of the town’s economy. He’s just been given a “Citizen of the Year” award, he lives in a beautiful, cozy cabin with his devoted wife (Laura Dern) and he’s got a loving son (played by Neeson’s real-life son, Micheal Richardson) who works as a baggage hauler at Kehoe’s airport — and who’s just turned up dead on a Denver street of a heroin overdose.
The local cops see it as an open-and-shut case. But Coxman insists his son is not a “druggie,” as he puts it, although his wife seems to think that they didn’t know their son as well as they thought. We already know that Coxman’s boy didn’t off himself, thanks to the film’s opening scenes. Soon Coxman himself — through an unlikely interruption as he contemplates suicide — is aware that his son was actually on the payroll of Denver drug lord “Viking” (Tom Bateman) who has been funneling cocaine through the airport. Armed with that knowledge, Coxman begins to murder his way up the chain of Viking’s henchmen — putting himself even closer to danger as he unwittingly ignites a war between Viking and a local Native American cartel operator who have a delicate territory-sharing arrangement.
That does sound like it could come right off the top of the pile of scripts Neeson probably gets sent every day, and a chunk of the film revolves around the grisly and often unusual methods in which Neeson dispatches Viking’s men. But there is also a fair amount of humor involving his manner of getting rid of the bodies, and a number of more iconoclastic subplots that take screen time away from our protagonist while attempting to flesh out, in some ways, the enemies arrayed against him.
Does it all work? Unfortunately no. Moland seems to be aiming for a mordant Coen Brothers kind of vibe here — and the endlessly wintry setting certainly brings Fargo to mind — but he doesn’t handle the rapid-fire shifts in tone or characters as skillfully as the siblings from Minnesota. For starters, we don’t get to know Coxman nor his wife (the severely underused Dern simply disappears from the movie halfway through) all that well, nor do we get any sort of inkling of why Coxman would take matters into his own hands so quickly. Even though he tells his brother (William Forsythe), a former criminal himself, that he learned how to dispose of his victims from reading a crime novel, he’s just so damn efficient at it that it strains believability as much as Neeson’s far sillier 2014 programmer Non-Stop.
Neeson also checks out of the movie for long stretches, so we can spend some quality time with Viking, his henchmen (all of whom, in a running gag, have similar nicknames), and two cops (Emmy Rossum and John Doman) trying to figure out why drug cartel operatives are dropping like melting icicles. As Viking, the smarmy Bateman is acting in another movie altogether, one that also includes a domestic drama involving his ex (Julia Jones, who actually fares better than Dern as “the wife”) and their bitter feud over how to raise their son.
There are also a couple of surprises that involve the romantic lives of some of Viking’s goon squad, and an attempt at some social themes involving the Native American kingpin (Tom Jackson) and the way his culture has been co-opted. But none of this gets enough time to really resonate, giving Cold Pursuit that odd sensation of both moving too fast and too slowly at the same time.
Moland retains his bit from the original film about using title cards to mark the passing of each character, some of whose names we don’t even really get to know until we see them on the screen. Like many of the movie’s attempts at humor, it’s funny until it becomes vaguely irritating and makes one aware of how much the movie is dragging. There’s no question that Cold Pursuit is smarter, wittier and more stylish than some of the other Neeson potboilers we’ve mentioned earlier, and some viewers may respond well to the wild swings between deadpan jokiness and sharp, sudden violence. But it all adds up to little more than a brief respite from the chill outside that feels longer than it should.
Cold Pursuit is out in theaters next Friday (February 8).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye