It’s been 18 months since Liam Neeson’s supposed retirement from action films and in that time, it seems he’s set his sights on auteur filmmakers, with agreeable roles in both Steve McQueen’s Widows and the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But there’s a certain type of film within which his weathered, crevassed face thrives. “Liam Neeson on a plane,” or, “Liam Neeson on a train” – simple, no bullshit, B-movie synopses where he’s put in dumb situations and is single-handedly tasked with solving them. “Liam Neeson in a snowplow” might be an easy sell, but Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s Cold Pursuit extends its narrative too far beyond Neeson’s grieving-father-revenge story. As an adaptation of Moland’s own In Order of Disappearance (2014), Cold Pursuit finds only short and uneven triumphs in transposing its Nordic crime comedy to an American context.
Neeson plays Nels Coxman: a real-life Mr Plow, Citizen of the Year in his ski resort town, and father of yet another fictional child who gets himself in deep trouble. When Coxman’s son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) is found dead from a heroin overdose, Coxman takes it upon himself to exact revenge on his son’s assailants. This is where the plot thickens: instead of typical revenge film linearity, Coxman’s actions upset multiple chains of command within its Rocky Mountain-based underworld and spark something of a turf war.
Cold Pursuit fancies itself as a comedy in a similar vein to Fargo (1996) or a Martin McDonagh film: darkly funny and deadpan in the face of death. (One of its great jokes involves a recurring title card-cum-obituary, cut to immediately after the death of any of a character, and used to great comedic advantage when things start to get dire.) Although it likens itself in location and tone to these types of films, it approaches this territory with an action bent, and puts Neeson to work as the hard-cut straight man while letting the comedy ripple around him.
Too often, however, Moland approaches the film’s comedic riffs with a tired eye, and much like McDonagh’s own severely-troubled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017), he’s unable to strike a balance between the film’s dramatic moments and its required comedic edge. A lot of the comedic heavy-lifting is placed on Tom Bateman’s Viking, the villainous crime boss at the top of the chain of command ultimately responsible for murdering Coxman’s son. Bateman, doing something of an unnerving and probably unintentional Joker impression, relishes the opportunity to be hammy in the role – kicking exercise balls like a manbaby after losing yet another gym bag; throwing a tantrum when one of his goons packs his son a lunch full of high fructose corn syrup. It’s a role often relegated to mindless monologuing about loyalty while dressed in sharp suits (and regretfully there’s still plenty of that) but there’s a memorability to his character that often goes overlooked in films of this ilk – he registers as a human beyond his antagonising role.
Cold Pursuit feels like a lost opportunity to translate the material into something special. There are small flourishes in the way that Moland indulges in Coxman’s Americanism – most visibly in the much-publicised “Where did you learn to kill a man?” / “I read it in a crime novel” bit. But there’s little conviction in Neeson’s performance. It’s hard to believe that Coxman would even take to crime novels when Neeson so colourlessly emulates his Norwegian counterpart (Stellan Skarsgård in In Order of Disappearance) and fills the preordained role with little pathos.
Moland isn’t the first director to remake his own film for an American audience. The most obvious and effective example of a director adapting their foreign-language film into a Westernized remake is still Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007), a shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 film of the same name. The lack of broad appeal for Haneke’s 1997 version meant that the criticisms the film levelled – of violence in the media, of violence in American cinema – went unseen by its intended US audience. Given the chance to remake it for an American audience, in English, Haneke accepted, and cast a couple Hollywood familiars. This time, the American public ate it up and, when confronted by the mirror the film held up to the country’s infatuation with violence, spat it straight back out.
But where Haneke had a clear vision for his film, Moland stumbles. Cold Pursuit feels all but disconnected from its American setting. Its locations have little identity: they feel like cardboard cut-outs of Norway rather than real environments in their own right. Moland doesn’t have anything new to say: he just capitalises on Neeson-as-revenge as a money-printing exercise. Where a director like Jaume Collet-Serra wrings every inch of pulp out of Neeson’s B-movie persona, Moland stretches his narrative beyond Neeson’s capacity, and Cold Pursuit ends up being just a failed chance at giving revenge a different edge.
Cold Pursuit is in Australian cinemas from 7 February.
Samuel Harris is a freelance film and music writer, an Editor of Rough Cut and a Michael Bay apologist. He is currently undertaking Honours in Media at RMIT University and has written for Cool Accidents and Catalyst Magazine. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris.