So, is Liam Neeson done with the dadsploitation genre, with the Takens and Commuters of the world? All signs point to yes. He had already seemed tired of these types of movies, and now, thanks to some troubling comments about an earlier incident in his life — in which he admitted to blindly wandering the streets looking to commit an act of racist violence — nobody wants to hear the words Liam Neeson and revenge in the same sentence again. Ironically enough, that enhances the weirdly reflective finality of Cold Pursuit, the latest Neeson-starring entry in the middle-aged-man-goes-on-a-killing-spree sweepstakes, a movie that starts off as a standard-issue vengeance flick but then depicts the spreading corrosiveness of violence in such self-conscious fashion that it can’t help but be at least partly about itself.
Directed by the Norwegian Hans Petter Moland, here remaking his own 2014 film In Order of Disappearance, Cold Pursuit follows Nels Coxman (Neeson, playing a character whose name was, no joke, Nils Dickman in the original), a snowplow driver and upstanding citizen in the small town of Kehoe, Colorado, whose 20-something son Kyle (Michael Richardson) is murdered by goons working for a slick, stuck-up Denver drug lord nicknamed “Viking” (Tom Bateman). Nels doesn’t know much about the people responsible for his son’s death: Using clues and confessions, he goes from person to person, slowly making his way up the food chain as he knocks off guys nicknamed “Speedo” and “Limbo” and “Santa.” There’s no speech this time about his special set of skills or anything — as far as we can tell, Nels has never hurt anyone before — but Neeson still possesses that same chilling calm that has made some of these revenge movies so compelling in the past. Initially, there’s a visceral quality to the kills — they’re brutal, and bloody — but he remains soft-spoken, almost businesslike. And he dispatches the bodies with offhand efficiency, wrapping each of his victims up in chicken wire and tossing them off a nearby ravine.
All along the way, to punctuate each death, Moland cuts to a screen with the deceased’s name and nickname, and a small cross (or Star of David, or in one notable moment, a peace sign). This motif initially strikes a somber note — the first time we see such a title screen, it’s after Kyle’s death — but it gradually becomes a bit more playful as Nels starts racking up the bodies. These RIP cards start to become story elements of their own, or perhaps markers of destiny; Moland eventually cuts to them without actually bothering to show us a character’s death, as if to suggest that people are dying way too fast for the movie to keep up with them.
And death spreads like a disease over the course of this film. Nels’s actions manage to pull a whole cross section of criminals into his growing web of violence. Because no bodies have been retrieved, Viking doesn’t know what to make of his men disappearing. Being the preening dope that he is, he manages to kill the son of a longtime Native American drug lord named White Bull (Tom Jackson), which then sets off an entirely separate revenge narrative, this one involving a gathering gang war between White Bull’s crew and Viking’s. Eventually, Nels doesn’t have to do all that much killing himself; the madness he’s set in motion starts to consume everybody around him.
On paper, Cold Pursuit might have read like one of those action flicks where a character gets in over their heads and sets off various, ironically pitched slaughters. (Think True Romance.) But Moland’s style, while certainly not without its moments of dry humor, is somber and precise, in keeping with the opaque sobriety of his protagonist. By the end, we don’t really know anything about Nels at all, and that feels intentional. Early scenes in which his distraught wife (Laura Dern) laments that they never really got to know their son don’t add up to much; she soon departs the narrative, and we don’t learn anything about Kyle, or about Nels’s relationship to him. Other movies might have taken the opportunity to show the avenging father having second thoughts, or exploring his late son’s life, or coming by some hard-won truths about himself. No such luck here: Our hero smoothly goes from mourning father to empty plot device — so empty that we’re ultimately deprived even of the spectacle of his kills. But in so doing, he manages to embody the very emptiness of revenge narratives such as this one. Cold Pursuit ultimately winds up being about how unsatisfying films like Cold Pursuit can be.