Cold Pursuit makes for an entertaining subversion of Neeson's previous action roles, but the story gets dragged down in its larger ambitions.
Based on the Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, Cold Pursuit is the latest action vehicle for star Liam Neeson, following his short-lived "retirement" from those types of films. Dating back to the original Taken more than a decade ago, the actor has been a staple of action fare, almost becoming an entire sub-genre unto himself. In Cold Pursuit, Neeson and director Hans Petter Moland (who also helmed the original foreign movie) attempt to mix up the formula by injecting some Coen brothers-esque dark humor and impactful themes into the proceedings. On that front, they're mostly successful. Cold Pursuit makes for an entertaining subversion of Neeson's previous action roles, but the story gets dragged down in its larger ambitions.
In Cold Pursuit, Neeson portrays snow plow driver Nels Coxman, who works diligently to keep the roads clear so the people of the small town Kehoe can drive around safely. Coxman's efforts lead to him being named Citizen of the Year, and he and his wife Grace (Laura Dern) attend a ceremony one night so Nels can receive his award. Meanwhile, the couple's son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) leaves to work his shift at the airport.
Tragedy strikes the Coxman family when Kyle is captured and murdered by members of a local drug cartel spearheaded by Trevor "Viking" Calcote (Tom Bateman). Upon learning what's happened to his son, Nels takes it upon himself to extract revenge, working his way up the cartel's ladder until he gets to Viking. As Nels goes on a killing spree, Viking's crew also find themselves in the middle of a turf war with Indian kingpin White Bull (Tom Jackson), which adds further complications to their operation.
Curiously, Cold Pursuit does not dedicate much time to establishing the Coxman family dynamic before thrusting viewers into the crux of the narrative. On one hand, that approach is appreciated since Moland wastes no time in delivering on the promise of the trailers (Neeson eliminating cartel employees in increasingly brutal ways), but it still negatively impacts the film. Viewers are given precious few scenes to connect with the Coxmans, as both Dern and Richardson are essentially wasted in minimal, thankless roles that are more plot devices than fully-formed characters. As such, Cold Pursuit is more an exercise of superficial thrills than something with a little more dramatic heft to ensure audiences stay invested throughout (like the original John Wick). It's unfortunate because Kyle's death is the inciting incident for the entire film and he barely registers with viewers - especially by the time the movie is over.
As for the rest of the script, the results are a bit of a mixed bag. On the positive side of the spectrum, Moland and writer Frank Baldwin do succeed in giving the film a bit of personality with its morbid comedy and amusing dialogue passages (see: a side character's claim that Steve Jobs would be jealous of his great idea). This obviously is Cold Pursuit's attempt to wear its Coens and Quentin Tarantino influences on its sleeve, meaning these elements don't always land with the intended effect, but Moland does hit the mark more often than not. However, he does struggle a bit in regards to pacing. The first act is very episodic as Nels tracks down one individual cartel member after another, and eventually his story is put on the back burner to showcase Viking's feud with White Bull. In this regard, Moland bites off a bit more than he can chew, since Cold Pursuit aims to tell a grander narrative than it's really built for. A more streamlined approach to the screenwriting may have benefitted the final product.
Neeson is reliably tough and gruff as ever in the role of Nels, aptly handling all of the physical demands expected of him. Cold Pursuit doesn't give the Academy Award nominated actor many places to display his dramatic range, but he's still a compelling enough lead for the movie's purposes. Any real weaknesses with the character are more the product of the script (Nels' quick transformation from snow plow driver to murderer) and less the performance. Thankfully, Neeson also doesn't seem out of place during the action sequences, which mercifully are not subject to quick-cut editing and were primarily constructed via practical filmmaking. Moland's handling of the set pieces grounds the action, giving it a tactile feel that makes all the punches and gun shots land hard.
In regards to the supporting cast, the clear standout is Bateman as "Viking," who is someone viewer will truly loathe from his first minutes onscreen. Bateman does a great job channeling the character's smarmy and entitled demeanor in a way that fits the material. He probably won't be remembered as one of 2019's greatest movie villains, but definitely works within the context of Cold Pursuit. The other actors, however, are largely burdened with one-note characters to just fill out the dueling cartel organizations and Kehoe town. The likes of Jackson, Emmy Rossum and John Doman (who portray two police officers investigating the cartel) try to do the best with the material they are given and do have some highlights, though that's not enough to really elevate the final product. Cold Pursuit falls victim to having an over-stuffed ensemble where there isn't time to give everyone their just due.
Ultimately, Cold Pursuit is but a fleeting entry in Neeson's filmography that falls somewhere in the middle when compared to his previous efforts. The film isn't bad by any means, but some may find it a bit lacking due to issues with the script and editing. Unless viewers are a die-hard fan of the genre or the principal players involved, there's no real need to rush out to catch Cold Pursuit on the big screen (even with the dearth of options currently playing for the target demographic). Curious parties can wait to catch it on home media, perhaps saving it for a day when they're snowed in.
Cold Pursuit is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 118 minutes and is rated R for strong violence, drug material, and some language including sexual references.
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- Cold Pursuit (2019) release date: Feb 08, 2019