Review: “Cold Pursuit”

2.5 out of 5 stars.

It’s easy to settle into “Cold Pursuit” expecting it to be little more than the usual Liam Neeson-driven revenge thriller that seems to pop into theaters around this time every year.  But while the film, which is directed by Hans Petter Moland and is a remake of his 2014 Norwegian film “In Order of Disappearance,” does contain the usual heavy dosage of action and violence, it wraps all its contents in a blanket of dark humor that occasionally succeeds at subverting the genre, but mostly undermines the story it’s trying to tell.

That story involves Nels Coxman (Neeson), a snow plow driver in the Colorado ski resort town of Kehoe.  Coxman leads a normal life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and son Kyle.  He is even named Kehoe’s “Citizen of the Year.”  But his life is turned upside down when Kyle is found dead from a heroin overdose.  Knowing that Kyle wasn’t into drugs, Nels finds out that Kyle was actually killed by a drug cartel, and begins killing off its members one by one as he searches for the man in charge: an egocentric drug lord who goes by the name “Viking” (Tom Bateman, in a hysterically over-exaggerated performance).

Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) seeks revenge for his son’s murder.

Once the film settles into its gleefully dark, Tarantino-esque voice, the humor works fairly well, becoming increasingly wackier as the body count goes up.  It provokes the kind of uncomfortable laughter that occasionally rises from morbid situations.  For instance, title cards are used to proclaim each characters’ death, and while they may seem overused, the payoff comes at the end of the film.  And there are some amusing moments surrounding Nels’—not exactly ineptness, but more like unfamiliarity with the underworld scene.  It’s here that the film pokes a bit of fun at the stereotypes of the genre, like the bizarrely nicknamed gang members, or the hiring of a hit man. But the lighthearted tone also comes into play in scenes where it feels misplaced rather than quirky, and unfortunately the first big instance of humor in the film is in the scene where Nels and Grace learn about Kyle’s death.  It detracts from their reaction and somewhat minimizes the seriousness of Nels’ need for revenge, which is the driving point of the whole movie.

In fact, the characters overall are the main issue the story has.  The film wastes no time getting down to business; it assumes you already know where this movie is headed and doesn’t bother with elaborate backstories.  Which is fine; “Cold Pursuit” doesn’t pretend to be any more than what it is, but the thinner storylines make it harder to get behind all the characters.  We assume that this is Nels’ first foray into crime, but then find out he has a brother (played by William Forsythe) who used to be a hitman for Viking’s father, so—maybe not?  We know next to nothing about what his relationship with his son was like, while Laura Dern peaces out of the movie after a couple of scenes and isn’t heard from again.  Not to mention all the inner workings of Viking’s gang, along with his young son, his ex-wife, and his rival, the Native American drug lord known as White Bull (Tom Jackson).  And if you don’t think the fact that the rivals are Native American means that they will be the subject of a storm of racial slurs just to emphasize how evil and unhinged Viking is—well, you’re very wrong.  There’s also a rather unnecessary side story about an idealistic young cop (Emmy Rossum) and her partner (John Doman) trying to get enough dirt on the gangs to clean up the town that doesn’t end up going anywhere.

As far as these sort of B action movies go, “Cold Pursuit” does manage to strike a unique enough tone to stand out from the rest.  Unfortunately, not all of the elements come together to form a cohesive whole, but fans of revenge tales, and fans of Neeson in revenge tales, will find enough over-the-top violence and thrills to satisfy them.

Runtime: 119 minutes. Rated R.

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