Think of Hollywood’s action movie heroes throughout the first century of film and Liam Neeson likely wouldn’t have sprung to mind at all. He’s got the strong, silent type of the hero archetype down pat, but he had rarely if ever been known for taking part in car chases and gunfights.
That all changed in 2009 with the surprise smash hit “Taken,” in which he played a ruthless CIA agent who would stop at absolutely nothing to save his teenage daughter from the human traffickers who had kidnapped her while on vacation in Paris. Displaying an amazing ability to add punching, kicking, fast driving and gunplay to his sensitive-actor skill set, Neeson stepped into the action-hero void left by the fading fortunes of Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger was then playing the Governator rather than the Terminator.
The fact that he used to be the lead in artier fare like “Schindler’s List” meant that he generally had deeper scripts than the typical action star. Yet, with a whopping 10 stunt-filled extravaganzas in the course of 10 years, his films were becoming rote, with last year’s “The Commuter” falling into laughable disarray by its finale.
Thankfully, Neeson had the sense to realize a course correction was needed, and he delivers a big one with his latest film, “Cold Pursuit.” Based on a 2014 Norwegian thriller called “In Order of Disappearance” — and directed by the same filmmaker, Hans Petter Moland — the film is a slyly wicked thriller in the vein of the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” that is packed with clever twists, hilariously nicknamed characters and a totally cheer-worthy quest for justice.
The film follows Neeson as Nels Coxman (yes, there’s jokes about that too), a snowplow driver on the mountain roads an hour or two out of Denver. He lives a quiet, desolate existence in a nice house with his wife Grace (a vastly underused Laura Dern) and early-20s son Kyle, who works at a small airport nearby.
When Kyle is mistakenly killed one night by a gang of thugs who thought he was involved with stealing 10 kilos of cocaine from a Denver-based drug lord nicknamed Trevor Calcote, aka “Viking” (Tom Bateman), Nels doesn’t take it lightly. Rather, he works his way up a list of guys with nicknames like Speedo, Limbo, Windex and Avalanche, killing each off in hilarious yet cold-blooded fashion.
At the same time, Viking believes that his men are being killed off by one of two rival Native American drug gangs, a female cop from the Marge Gunderson school of law enforcement is getting onto Nels’ trail, and a black hitman called “The Eskimo” whom Nels hires to off the Viking goes rogue. It’s a delicious stew of noir tropes turned upside down, and Moland and the reboot’s screenwriter Frank Baldwin dish it out at a surprisingly measured pace that throws off viewer expectations of relentless fury.
Perhaps the most fun aspect of the film is the way in which it is broken down into distinct segments, named after each villain as they go down — a stylistic move that gave the original film its title. And another impressive facet is the fact that Moland uses stylish cutaways to leave the most brutal moments to viewers’ imaginations — a move that also offers a few dark chuckles as wildly spraying blood spatter keeps ruining all manner of high-end furniture and clothing.
Coming after a January that served up relatively gentle fare, “Cold Pursuit” kicks February off with an impressive bang. Here’s hoping it’s a hit, so that similarly smart shoot-em-ups keep having their shot at the cinema.
“Cold Pursuit”: A