In 2007, German auteur Michael Haneke directed a shot-for-shot American remake of Funny Games, a film he had made 10 years prior. The decision came to him because he believed the film’s anti-violence message was most relevant to American audiences, and releasing it stateside would emphasize his point.
That was far from the first — or last — time an overseas filmmaker would revamp their own work for American moviegoers, yet it might be the only instance when the reasoning behind it didn’t seem strictly financial. Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland is the latest to conduct this cinematic experiment with Cold Pursuit, based on his 2014 film In Order of Disappearance. As another entry into the growing Neesploitation genre — goofy thrillers where Liam Neeson grumbles dialogue and delivers ass-beatings — it’s a sturdy revenge exercise whose overt comic tone will likely surprise those simply expecting a snowier riff on Taken. Still, it’s difficult to shake the notion that Cold Pursuit ultimately doesn’t have much reason to exist beside the fact Americans should never be forced to read subtitles during a movie.
Neeson plays Nels Coxman (changed from Nils Dickman in the original … lolz), a reserved snow plow driver in the town of Kehoe, Colorado. He’s been newly bestowed with a “Citizen of the Year” award and appears to be living in contentment with his wife (Laura Dern, shamefully wasted here) until his son is murdered by a couple low-lifes who try and disguise the death as a heroin overdose. Coxman realizes something’s rotten the instant he identifies the son’s body and promptly gets to killing his way through a criminal organization run by a drug lord who goes by the name Viking.
If you think that premise sounds a tad generic, well … you’d be correct. However, Moland and screenwriter Frank Baldwin know this, and inject it with offbeat character moments and odd, comical digressions to create a film that’s more effective as a black comedy than a revenge thriller.
Cold Pursuit peaks when it slows down to mine humor in the minor nuisances that plague a typical work day of the vicious gangsters after Coxman. In that regard, the movie owes much to Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh, offering a glimpse at how, when they’re not carrying out assassinations, these guys are mainly just standing around complaining about the job or trying to please their kale smoothie-chugging douchebag of a boss (Tom Bateman), a petulant brat who enforces a strict organic diet for his precocious son and gets in heated arguments with his ex-wife over parent-teacher conferences and visitation schedules.
Showing a bunch of villainous types shoot the breeze and talk like bumbling dorks is nothing new, but Cold Pursuit pushes the conceit into some idiosyncratic places, like Viking’s aforementioned obsession with natural food or a henchmen explaining the elaborate and boneheaded strategy he uses to try and seduce unsuspecting motel cleaning ladies. The screenplay makes an effort to develop personalities for characters who, in a lesser story, would only be one-dimensional targets for Neeson to pick off with his hunting rifle. That tactic adds a tinge of sentiment whenever a goon meets his grisly end.
When the movie shifts into thriller mode, things tend to feel perfunctory. Neeson’s protagonist isn’t very compelling from the outset, and his bad-guy disposal methods primarily involve a quick interrogation followed by a gunshot to the face. Moland’s action direction isn’t necessarily impressive either, and a climactic shootout unfolds without any real tension or visual imagination. Clearly, he’s more interested in the inner lives of wicked men, so much so that Neeson’s quest for vengeance is pushed aside for the majority of the final hour in favor of an escalating feud between Viking and a Native American crime syndicate.
Thankfully, every time Cold Pursuit threatens to lose steam, the film switches gears and goes on another brief comic detour, whether it’s the abrupt ending to the saga of a hitman named Eskimo or a group of Native American mobsters gaslighting a hotel clerk to receive a free room. Not all of the humor lands, but the distinct vibe it puts out is consistently amusing.
In Order of Disappearance managed a similar balancing act and in superior fashion, and that is my biggest knock against this new film. Having seen Disappearance rather recently, I found the experience of watching Cold Pursuit to be perplexing. It mostly functions as a beat-for-beat copy of its predecessor. Had I no knowledge of the original, I could imagine myself admiring what feels like the Coen Brothers touching up a Taken script. It’s no doubt less impressive to witness the same feat pulled off twice. That said, those unfamiliar with the previous version won’t have to suffer that sense of diminishing returns while watching this one. Or they could, you know, just read the damn subtitles.