Following up Netflix’s Polar and last week’s theatrical release of Arctic, Cold Pursuit is the third winter-themed thriller of the new year. Not only is it the best out the three, but it’s also the best out of all the old, grizzled, Liam Neeson action flicks we’ve had rammed down our throats since 2008’s Taken. Cold Pursuit juggles a vast array of characters in a surprisingly humorous revenge-driven thriller, and its blend of wince-inducing violence and darkly funny moments make for an incredibly entertaining experience.
Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is a humble snowplow driver who works and lives in a Rocky Mountain resort town with his wife, Grace (Laura Dern) and son, Kyle (Micheál Richardson). Life seems great, and Nels is even honored as the small town’s Citizen of the Year for his dedication to keeping the snowy roads clear. All of that is ruined when Kyle turns up dead, with the cause ruled as a heroin overdose. Nels refuses to believe it, knowing that his son was not a drug user, and his insistence drives Grace away from him and leaves him with little else to live for. With nothing left to lose, Nels goes on a murderous spree of revenge, intent on taking out anyone in his path towards the leader of the drug cartel that had his son killed, who goes by the name of Viking (Tom Bateman).
Cold Pursuit is an American remake of a 2014 Norwegian film called In Order of Disappearance, and its director, Hans Petter Moland, has returned to make this one as well. That’s not something you often see, a director remaking their own film, especially after only five years have passed between the two, but it’s probably the secret to what makes Cold Pursuit so darn good. Its moody, violent scenes are continuously punctuated by moments of painfully awkward or straight up goofy humor. This should be awful, but they’re perfectly placed – a funny reflection of the odd moments that can happen in even the most serious of situations. It’s certainly a fun stylistic choice, the most prominent moments of levity are whenever a character is killed, the film cuts to a little graphic of their name and nickname. In a fun callback to the original film’s title, the acting section of the credits are shown “in order of disappearance”.
The performances carry most of the film – Neeson is as reserved and thoughtful as ever, and with this being his self-declared final action movie, he couldn’t have ended on a better note. Nels is a man who’s lost everything, driven only by grief and anger, and that desperate hopelessness is portrayed through every one of Neeson’s stoic, pained expressions. Nels is one of his more interesting protagonists, but a midway reveal of his family’s background robs the character of what was most enjoyable about him: that he was just an ordinary man on a quest for justice.
The film switches perspectives back and forth from Nels to Viking, and it’s all the better for it. Spending time with Viking and his men allows you to get to know the antagonist more intimately than most films like this do; we see him make feeble attempts to connect with his son, argue over custody and parenting with his ex-wife, and horribly misconstrue the meaning of Lord of the Flies. Bateman’s performance is exceptional here. He’s having an absolute blast playing a despicable, racist, sexist criminal who thinks he can’t be touched. Viking is a near caricature of the conniving dudebros of today, but the film never lets the character get too far away from it, always inserting reminders of how genuinely intimidating and smart he actually is.
As Nels starts wiping out Viking’s men, he mistakenly assumes it to be the work of the rival drug gang, which happen to be made up of Native Americans. Viking has one of the members killed and his body publicly displayed, violating a previous peace treaty between the two crime groups, and unleashing a second wave of vengeful anger against him. Despite the characters being criminals, Cold Pursuit contains a respectful and welcome case of Native American representation on-screen. Once they get tossed into the mix, the film spends plenty of time with them, showing just how dedicated it is to fleshing out every single character.
Cold Pursuit is an entertaining and surprisingly fast-paced thrill ride that only continues to build upon itself. Every character, no matter how minor the role may be, gets a chance to shine (although Laura Dern goes criminally underused), and each performance is a stand out. It explores the nature of life and death and isn’t afraid to put emphasis on how the unfair cruelty of it can sometimes be so bleak that you can’t help but laugh at it. It has an almost Coen Brothers feel to it in that sense, and that’s never a bad thing.
Cold Pursuit is the best possible send-off for Liam Neeson as an action movie star. Its uniquely morbid sense of humor sets it apart from others, and its story of vigilante justice is extremely satisfying.