The neatly plowed road sandwiched between two high snow walls from the Cold Pursuit preview drew me to the movie theater the day after the Great Seattle Snowpocalypse. The preview highlights the film’s wry wit and absurdity. Those things, and Liam “I’ve got a certain set of skills” Neeson’s stating he’d learned to kill from reading a crime novel, should have afforded an afternoon at the cinema that allowed me to forget the unplowed snow on my street.
Liam Neeson plays Nels Coxman, a model citizen and mega-snowplow driver. Coxman and his huge snowplow are the only thing keeping Kehoe, Colorado linked to civilization during the winter. His son, Kyle (played by Neeson’s real life son, Micheal Richardson) is murdered by a drug cartel and Coxman vows revenge.
Cold Pursuit, directed by Norway’s Hans Petter Moland, is a remake of his Norwegian film, In Order of Disappearance (2014). Moland rewrote the script for an American audience with first time screenwriter Frank Baldwin. The plot is the same – a father seeks vengeance against a drug cartel for murdering his son- but the two rival drug cartels were changed from Norwegian and Serbian to (white) Americans and Native Americans.
Moland has stated the script underwent such an extensive rewrite because In Order of Disappearance exhibited aspects of race and nationalism that an American audience would not tolerate. The stereotypical presentation of Native Americans, every scene featuring the Native American drug cartel also features music meant to be riff on Native American chanting and drumming, for example, and the casual misogyny of the white drug cartel, might have been intended as edgy but was actually sad.
The script rewrite attempts dark humor and irony. The attempts at humor are disconnected from other aspects of the story. Scenes or settings that are meant to be edgy and satirical come across as clumsy. At the morgue, where Coxman and his wife Grace (played by Laura Dern), the medical examiner pumps a loud, squeaky pedal to raise their son’s remains so they can positively identify him. The grating noise and corpse that jostled with each pump of the pedal felt obnoxious and unnecessary. A scene where Coxman has his revenge on the drug dealer Speedo (played by Michael Ecklund) in the back of a van lands well due to the continuity of banter from the previous scene and the skill of the actor. Ecklund played Speedo with an unscrewed physicality and a foolish bravado with a tinge of sleaze that leaves the viewer cheering.
Character development and continuity would have supported the dark humor. Coxman is spurred to action but by the end of the film, has he changed at all? Looking back at his actions and terse dialogue in the film, I have no idea. Laura Dern depicts a caring mother and a loving wife until she doesn’t. One moment she’s present in the film and the next she’s gone. I was left with many questions. Did she know her husband was taking vengeance on the drug cartel? Did she really leave because her husband couldn’t name their son’s favorite movie? Did she believe her son was a heroin addict and she had no idea? And why didn’t the script rewrite also provide character arcs?
I left the film feeling mildly entertained. Neeson did well with what little the script allowed him. The supporting characters fell between over the top or forgettable. Ultimately, the unstable structure and trying too hard edginess took me out of the story. I spent most of the film admiring the beautiful filming locations and staring wistfully at the plowed roads.