Call it Taken on Ice, call it Mr. Plow: The Movie, call it “Neeson and Chill.” But whatever you dub Cold Pursuit, starring Liam Neeson as a father out for revenge — don’t confuse it with grim business as usual. After starring in three films in which his character’s “very particular set of set of skills” get put to good use, plus four other films that could fit the same bill (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter), the 66-year-old actor approaches this snowbound thriller with tongue firmly in cheek.
He stars as Nels Coxman (let the jokes commence), a stoic husband and father who runs a snowplow business in the ski resort town of Kehoe, Colorado. Coxman doesn’t talk much, a source of contention with his wife Grace (Laura Dern, wasted). But he’s just been named Kehoe’s Citizen of the Year. No, Neeson hasn’t gone soft. Coxman gets pissed pronto when tragedy strikes his son Kyle, played by Micheál Richardson — Neeson’s real-life son with the late Natasha Richardson.
No, Kyle isn’t taken. It’s worse than that. He dies from a heroin overdose, a calamity that turns his father suicidal. Coxman decides to stay alive when he learns that his boy’s death was, in fact, staged by a Denver-based drug syndicate eager to send a message. Cue the closeup of Neeson simmering with rage and vowing to terminate everyone in the organization, from the lowliest tool to the head man. Now we’re talking. And the drug kingpin, Viking — played to the hilt and beyond by Brit actor Tom Bateman — is scum personified. His thugs have names like Speedo, Limbo and Santa. Two of them are gay, so check the box for inclusion, even among villains.
If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s been lifted from the 2014 Norwegian thriller, In Order of Disappearance, starring Stellan Skarsgård in the Neeson role. Instead of letting Hollywood screw up his movie, director Hans Petter Moland seized the reins himself, and he makes a lively, brutal business of it. He and screenwriter Frank Baldwin (adapting Kim Fupz Aakeson’s original script) wisely inject heaps of humor into the action. There is fun to had in the byplay between Emmy Rossum as a rookie police officer and her seen-it-all partner, played with deadpan flair by John Doman. The great William Forsythe nails every laugh as Coxman’s black-sheep brother. And wait for the cards that pop up after each death blow, bearing a crucifix and the name of the creep who’s just bitten the dust.
Cold Pursuit doesn’t give its star much of an opportunity to act — for that you’ll have to catch him in Widows, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or Martin Scorsese’s Silence. But his scenes with Viking’s sensitive young son, Ryan (a terrific Nicholas Holmes), add a much-needed warmth to the chilly proceedings. The fans show up for this kind of movie to watch Neeson knock heads with bad guys, and Moland lets him rip. There’s no dawdling over sentiment. If you want to see a snowplow used as a weapon of mass destruction, you’ve come to the right movie.
Of course, some audiences won’t feel like laughing at the banter or applauding the mayhem in the light of the controversy Neeson recently stirred up when he told a reporter for The Guardian about an incident 40 years ago, in which a woman close to him was raped by a black man and he took to the streets hoping to take out his anger on anyone who resembled the attacker. “I am not a racist,” said Neeson, quickly apologizing for his remarks. His reality and the deeper discussion it provokes probably shouldn’t be confused with Cold Pursuit‘s escapist action fantasy, which skims unapologetically on the surface. Some viewers will be put off by Neeson’s remarks and avoid the film like the plague; others merely looking to be entertained for two hours will flock to this revenge fantasy regardless. It’s your call.