For the sake of transparency, let me begin by putting my cards right on the table. I’ve dug every second of Liam Neeson’s late-career reinvention as Hollywood’s gruffest dispenser of bareknuckle justice since he first kicked the cycle off in 2008’s Taken. In that film, of course, he played a steely retired CIA agent with a “very particular set of skills” seeking vengeance for his daughter’s kidnapping. Then, three years later in Unknown, he returned as a steely doctor seeking vengeance for those who had stolen his memory. Since then, Neeson has essentially rinsed and repeated the same steely formula in The Grey, Taken 2, Non-Stop, Taken 3, and The Commuter. Sure, the procedural whys and wherefores have changed ever so slightly from one film to the next, but the end result has always the same: Neeson dishing out pulpy payback, straight with no chaser.
You’d think by now, 10 years into this implausible aging-vigilante cycle, things would be getting a bit tired and rote. But you’d be wrong. Because while his latest entry, the sub-zero action-thriller Cold Pursuit, may not necessarily be the best picture in the bunch, it’s definitely the daffiest and most delirious. This time around, Neeson stars as Nels Coxman (seriously!) — a quiet family man who works as a snowplow driver in a blizzardy Colorado ski town called Kehoe. I know, it sounds preposterous, but just go with it. And yes, he’s seeking vengeance yet again. I won’t spill the beans on why… okay, yes I will, it’s in the trailer. His son, Kyle, who works loading baggage at the local airport has turned up dead from a heroin overdose. But Nels and his wife, Grace (Laura Dern), know their son and smell something fishy.
It turns out that Kyle has actually been murdered by gang of drug-dealing goons with colorful nicknames like Speedo, Limbo, and Santa. They all work for a fastidious, super-wealthy, hair-trigger psycho named Viking (Tom Bateman). How do we know he’s a psycho? Well, among other things, he berates his son for eating sweets that contain high-fructose corn syrup, in what has to be a first in the pantheon of cinematic villains. The tragedy of losing his son causes a rift in Nels’ marriage, but that won’t stop him in his mission to methodically work his way up the criminal food chain to Viking.
If this all sounds like murder-by-numbers Liam Neeson Mad Libs, well, it kind of is. But what sets Cold Pursuit apart from its predecessors is its tone. It has the jokey, self-amused vibe of an Elmore Leonard novel or one of those arch, wannabe Tarantino knock-offs that sprouted up like toadstools in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and were quickly forgotten. It knows exactly what kind of movie it is, but that doesn’t stand in the way of it goosing its bloodbath set pieces with irreverent, off-kilter gallows humor.
A loose remake of Hans Petter Moland’s 2014 Norwegian import In Order of Disappearance (Moland also directs this one), Cold Pursuit is overstuffed with idiosyncratic low-life characters who, between spasms of violence, delight in delivering hilarious dialogue detours — its two-hour running time zips by. And while our parka-clad hero disappears for long stretches throughout the film, whenever he is on screen Neeson serves up more than just squinty, rock-tumbler-voiced menace. He manages to convey a real haunted sense of loss between beat-downs, especially in the scenes he shares with William Forsythe, who plays his estranged brother and aces every shred of screen time he’s given.
Watching Neeson go through the paces of films like these, it’s hard not to be reminded of another movie star who rode a vigilante renaissance into his retirement years: Charles Bronson. But unlike Bronson, Neeson never seems bored or comes off like he’s phoning it in — that these films are somehow beneath him. And why should he? Payback is now Neeson’s business… and business is good. B+