Revenge, like rice pudding, is a dish best served cold. If Liam Neeson offers you a rice pudding, eat it up before he breaks your nose by smashing your face onto the table, then carves out your eye with the spoon. Neeson excels at the role of revanchist mid-lifer on screen and, judging from his admission about having once gone in search of a ‘black bastard’ to cosh after a friend had been raped, he’s done his homework too.
Liam Neeson is 66 years old. Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, is 59 years old. The media have universally reviled Northam for putting a photograph of a white man in blackface in his yearbook over three decades ago. The media have been more forgiving of Neeson’s plan to cosh a ‘black bastard’ over three decades ago for no other reason that his blackness and perceived bastardy. Northam pleads in mitigation of the indefensible that it isn’t him in the photo. Neeson put himself in the frame, and the media do his mitigating for him. Something is wrong with this picture. Why has no one has asked where Neeson got his cosh from? The set of Delta Force? A theatrical costumer’s? An S&M emporium, along with a comedy policeman outfit?
Something is also wrong with Neeson’s latest revenge vehicle, Cold Pursuit, which, given Neeson’s age, should really be called Old Pursuit. But the wrongness turns out to be Scandinavian weirdness, which is quite refreshing. The vehicle is a snow plow, so the pursuit, though cold, proceeds slowly. The director, Hans Petter Molland, has remade his Norwegian-language 2016 film In Order of Disappearance for American audiences. The original, starring Stellan Skarsgård, was about a snow plow driver who goes on a revenge plow because drug dealers have killed his son with a heroin overdose, and because you can’t go on a revenge spree in a snow plow that only goes at 10 miles per hour. A few details have been changed. As Skårsgard’s character was called Nils Dickman, a name sure to have American audiences rolling in the aisles, Neeson’s character is given the entirely innuendo-free name of Nels Coxman.
The original switched genres faster than a snow plow switches gears on a downhill stretch. The American version starts with the usual Neeson scenario — a solid but taciturn citizen develops a sudden flair for hand-to-hand combat — but skids out into ironic comedy. It would be lazy to refer to Cold Pursuit as Taken-meets-Frozen. As the Dickman-Coxman gag suggests, Cold Pursuit is more like Taken-meets-Frozen with elements of Point Blank-meets-Reservoir Dogs. Still, it hangs together in a quirky way, and Neeson plays it resolutely straight amid the farce.
As Neeson slaughters his way up the chain of coke-dealing command towards the villain, Trevor ‘Viking’ Calcote, the comedy gets increasingly meta-revenge. Coxman offs first Speedo (beating, then double throttling), then Limbo (punching out front teeth, then shotgun blast to the chest), and then Santa (beaten until choking on own blood, then shot in the temple point-blank). The closer Coxman gets to the Viking, the more people laugh at his name, and the more his quest for revenge gets tangled with a feud between the Viking (Tom Bateman) and a Native American drug gang led by White Bull (Trevor Jackson), which is also played for laughs, decapitations and shootings included. The gang in In Order of Disappearance were Serbians, who are indigenous to Norway.
The members of the cast are shot beautifully in the frozen hills around the ski town of Kehoe, Nev., apart, that is, from the members of the cast who are shot messily in Denver, and the unfortunate member of White Bull’s gang who gets sucked into the snow plow and splattered over the pristine white landscape. The supporting cast all give skilled cameos in between the beatings and shootings, apart from those members of the Viking’s gang who are shot mid-cameo. Laura Dern is present just enough for us to miss her after she walks out on Coxman. Arnold Pinnock gives a brief but expert turn as the African American hitman Eskimo; you wonder what was going through Leeson’s mind as they filmed their single scene. Emmy Rossum is the rookie cop who suspects Coxman is as pure as the driven slush, but never quite gets on his trail. Tom Bateman is the Viking, a man so comically evil that he gives his son Lord of the Flies as a primer when he’s under the cosh at school.
Cold Pursuit could never have been made by an American, unless he was John Waters. The Dirty Harry movies don’t include a close-up of a chihuahua defecating in the snow, or a reveal of a secret gay affair between two of the Viking’s killers. Nor do we see two scenes obligatory in all American thrillers: a scene with naked women, traditionally either pole-dancers or girlfriends, and a scene in which the male villain punches a woman. When Viking swings at his estranged wife Aya (Julia Jones), Tarantino would have relished the chance for a little ironic misogyny. But Molland has her duck the blow and then incapacitate the Viking by twisting his genitals. Nor does Coxman despatch the drug dealers who killed his son by using the plow, or seduce Emmy Rossum’s policewoman. No Coxman he.
I wouldn’t watch Cold Pursuit twice, but I quite enjoyed its madcap variety and Scandic absurdity. The Saturday night audience, mostly men of a certain age, seemed to find it cathartic too. They laughed in the right places, including when Aya twisted the Viking’s nuts, and gave a gentle ripple of applause at the end. They gathered up their cups and popcorn cartons when they left, too.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.