Nels Coxman (played by Liam Neeson), the lead character of Cold Pursuit, has never killed anyone in his life. A snowplow driver in the fictional Colorado ski town of Kehoe, he’s beloved enough that his fellow citizens name him “Man of the Year,” letting him give a corny speech as his beaming wife, Grace (Laura Dern), looks on. Nels seems harmless—but this is a Liam Neeson movie, one firmly planted in the tradition that began with Taken (2008), in which a quiet, respectable guy is pushed to become an action star by extraordinary circumstances. If 2014’s Non-Stop was Taken on a plane, and 2018’s The Commuter was Taken on a train, then surely Cold Pursuit is Taken on a snowplow, right?
Hans Petter Moland’s film, a remake of his own 2014 Norwegian drama In Order of Disappearance, starts out exactly along those lines. When Nels’s son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) dies mysteriously at the hands of local drug dealers, the protagonist begins to seek bloody retribution, taking out the gangsters one by one as he works his way up their chain of command. But 45 minutes in, the situation spins out of control; Nels’s personal mission destroys a lifetime alliance between two crime families, leading to an all-out war that draws in the cops and a notorious out-of-town assassin called “The Eskimo.” At this point, Cold Pursuit edges into the realm of satire, becoming a cautionary tale for anyone who has ever wished to be the star of a revenge thriller.
The heightened publicity Cold Pursuit has received this week was the result of a different sort of cautionary tale about revenge. During an interview, Neeson bizarrely confessed—unprompted—his regrets over a racist murder fantasy that he’d harbored decades ago after a friend told him she had been raped. His disturbing comments have been greeted, rightly, by a storm of criticism. Many writers have also noted the ugly parallels between Neeson’s anecdote and the types of vigilante movies he tends to star in. Cold Pursuit indeed centers on a man consumed by his desire for vengeance at all costs. Still, the film is tonally distinct from movies such as Taken and eventually veers into goofier territory. It isn’t trying to seriously wrestle with the real-world implications of an ordinary citizen looking to take justice into his own hands.
The main villain Nels goes up against in Cold Pursuit is known as Viking (Tom Bateman), a Denver drug lord prone to barking cruelly at his son and sneering at his subordinates. Beneath him is Byzantine layer upon layer of dealers, assassins, and bodyguards, each of whom has his own special nickname. Because of Nels’s vendetta, Viking’s gang is mistakenly drawn into a war with White Bull (Tom Jackson), the head of a rival, Native American league of trained killers. As the movie goes on, Neeson gradually begins to recede into the background of his own movie—and other characters move into the spotlight—as Nels starts to realize that throwing dead bodies into the Colorado River won’t be enough to make his life whole again.
The film mixes knowing irony with grim violence, dispatching gangsters and villains in ludicrous fashion. But what most distinguishes Cold Pursuit from its ilk is the way it calls attention to every single time a life is taken. Whenever someone dies in the movie, the character’s name flashes on the screen, along with the colorful nickname (such as “Wingman” or “Speedo” or “Limbo”) and a religious symbol—like a little visual gravestone for the victim. By the end of the movie, this arch story device can barely keep up with the bloodshed; at one point, more than a dozen names pop up at once.
Cold Pursuit might have been a more resonant movie if its ensemble were as compelling as Neeson himself. But Bateman doesn’t make much of an impression as the chief bad guy, and the rest of the mid-level cast can be hard to keep track of, since they enter the film out of nowhere and get killed off just as quickly. The script has a wry sense of humor but is almost never laugh-out-loud funny, and the gory substance of the plot regularly overwhelms the delicate notes of parody.
Still, if you were looking for a straightforward Liam Neeson action drama, you could enjoy one of the many other options that are in constant rotation on cable TV. For better and for worse, Cold Pursuit is a curiosity, a parable on the underlying hollowness of pulpy revenge that nevertheless tries to serve up the requisite amount of bloody violence for its viewers. While it could strike that balance better, it’s one of the very few entries in this genre that attempt to inject any kind of introspection at all. Cold Pursuit isn’t just “Taken on a snowplow”; it’s something much weirder and more insightful.