It’s so very tempting to say that Liam Neeson’s recent comments — about wanting to kill a random black man as punishment for a crime committed by another, different, unknown black man — have cast a pall over his latest revenge fantasy, Cold Pursuit. (Neeson shared this story by way of explaining, in the course of promoting this very movie, why he understands the appeal of revenge fantasies, thereby illustrating that he understands neither revenge nor public relations.) But it would be difficult for there to be a greater pall over Cold Pursuit than the one this infuriatingly unwatchable movie casts over itself.
For this is a racist, sexist movie that appears to insist on the absolute necessity of its racism and sexism: it’s here, stubbornly, even though there’s no justification for it. Excising all the random racist, sexist crap padding out this rancid excuse for a thriller might have gotten the film down to the sort of 87-minute runtime that garbage that like this warrants (if it warrants any existence at all).
And yet that still wouldn’t help with a more fundamental problem with the movie: that it makes no sense whatsoever.
Nels Coxman (Neeson) drives a snow plow in and around the (fictional) Rocky Mountain ski-resort town of Kehoe, where he has just been named “Citizen of the Year,” presumably because no one else could possibly manage a snow plow like he does. Of course this is meant to be part of the movie’s grim, unfunny “humor,” because would any town’s Citizen of the Year go on a killing rampage, even in response to the death of his son? Kyle Coxman (Micheál Richardson, very briefly) is murdered by soldiers of drug lord Trevor “Viking” Calcote (Tom Bateman, a rare English actor with a terrible American accent) because—
Cheap callbacks to ‘Fargo’ only suggest that the Coen Brothers might have made this unpleasant mess palatable.
Well, we never know why. A suitcase full of Viking’s cocaine has gone missing, but Cold Pursuit never bothers to let us know what Kyle had to do with that, or even if he had anything to do with that. Maybe Viking and his guys made a mistake fingering the culprit? Maybe director Hans Petter Moland — remaking his own 2014 Norwegian film Kraftidioten — is offering commentary on the pointlessness of revenge thrillers and the moviegoing audience’s obvious thirst for them? Like, does it even matter why Liam Neeson is going on another rage-fueled execution spree? But if so, why even bother with the son’s murder? Why not have the antihero fly into a vigilante fit over something really minor and petty? Maybe Viking left his fancy car purchased with drug money in the path of Coxman’s plow?
But there’s no indication that there’s any satire in the offing — no, not even the Oscar Wilde quote that bizarrely opens the movie. Even the few cheap callbacks to Fargo do nothing but suggest that filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers might have made this unpleasant mess palatable, or even genuinely entertaining. Moland cannot manage the tone, however, and the whole endeavor is thoroughly appalling. The extended riff about kidnapping is bad, though a better filmmaker might have pulled it off; the dragged-out sight gag about poor dead Kyle’s body in the morgue is completely abhorrent, because aren’t we meant to share Coxman’s outrage? Why are we invited to laugh at Kyle’s corpse and the horror of his shocked parents having to identify him?
Kyle’s mom, an utterly thankless role, is played by Laura Dern, who smartly gets the hell out of the movie as soon as she possibly can, before she can be humiliated the way that other women are here, like the shrill caricature of an Asian woman (Elizabeth Thai), the wife of a retired drug runner, and Viking’s harridan of an ex (Julia Jones). But why does Neeson disappear for a long stretch in the middle of the action? Moland gives us absolutely no reason to care about the turf war that Coxman stirs up between Viking and White Bull (Tom Jackson), the rival Native American drug lord with whom Viking had an uneasy truce until the latter’s men started turning up dead. (We cannot even tell some of the members of these gangs apart, actually, they’re so indistinct and undeveloped.) The movie does zip with the Kehoe cop (Emmy Rossum) who is investigating the local shenanigans, except force her to contend with the sexist “banter” of her older colleague (John Doman).
Cold Pursuit is the sort of abomination that thinks it can get away with abuse and bigotry because it’s coming from characters who are not very nice or outright villains, such as Viking’s horrendous exchange with an African-American hitman (Arnold Pinnock). That doesn’t excuse it or justify it. It’s all engineered by Moland and screenwriter Frank Baldwin, who maneuver their narrative pawns into positions where they can be abused as a sideshow to all the bloody violence. Perhaps they knew just how tedious the action stuff is, and thought to distract us? They failed at that, too.
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