Ever since Taken hit theaters in 2008, Liam Neeson has built a steady career starring in action thrillers starring him and a gun (or in the case of Cold Pursuit, his fists). He starred in three Taken films, stretching out the original premise to the absolute max. Obviously people think of these films as a standard for Liam Neeson or they wouldn’t be doing so well. After over a decade of thriving in his self made sub-genre, the question is whether Neeson can keep audiences interested or not. And my answer after seeing Cold Pursuit is that I’m not quite so sure.
Cold Pursuit is the story of Nelson Coxman, a snowplow driver living a quiet life in the rocky mountains with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and young adult son, Kyle. One night while Kyle is at work, he and a friend are kidnapped by two mysterious men. The men inject him with enough heroin to kill him before leaving his body in town for everyone to see. Kyle’s parents are confused when they find out that their son has overdosed on heroin. Grace eventually gives in to the thought that she just didn’t know her son. Coxman is less convinced, he is certain that his son was not a drug addict. He sets out on a path to find out what happened to his son. It’s a path of mystery, heartache, and murder.
I had a troubling time processing Cold Pursuit sitting in the theater. In fact, I don’t think a movie has left me this bewildered in ages. This movie tries to balance several different genres at once, a feat that it didn’t successfully pull off. It attempts to be a gritty drama about parents coping with the loss of their children. It also wants to be very graphic high-octane thriller where Liam Neeson beats up everyone he meets. The weirdest thing that this movie tries to throw into the mix is attempts at being a comedy.
I can’t deny that I’m a fan of dark humor. Dark humor is an excellent outlet for people to explore the weirder parts of the human psyche. In my opinion, it’s the hardest kind of humor to get right and this movie never gets remotely close to right. It often tries to make murder hilarious by making a character drop a one-liner before offing someone in grisly ways. Even more painful are the attempts at humor when people are dealing with the bodies of their dead children. Whenever Coxman and his wife visit the coroner to see Kyle’s body, the film tries to lighten up the atmosphere with a long running, cringe inducing gag that fails miserably. This type of “humor” is present throughout the entire film and it never lands once. Comedy and violence can work in the right film (see Kingsman: The Secret Service) but the mixture bogs this film down.
The dramatic elements are severely undercut by the misplaced humor in the film. Scenes that should have emotional weight to them left me feeling cold more often than not thanks to the film’s poor attempts at being funny. The over-the-top violence in the film is purely just too much. I watch Game of Thrones, I can definitely handle seeing violence in media. The difference between Cold Pursuit and Thrones, is that the latter has plenty of story and emotion to balance the violence. There’s also the lack of proper pacing with the kills in this film. I can’t remember a single scene where someone wasn’t dying or laying dead in this movie. When people die in such rapid succession, death loses it’s ability to shock. In the end, I really didn’t care if almost anyone died because the movie made me so numb to the idea.
The film’s story to me is a bit lacking in the first half. It’s pretty much just Liam Neeson killing person after person until you grow bored. Neeson seemed to lack investment in his character, who is essentially an empty killing machine. His performance is just him going through the motions, but there’s not much in Coxman for him to sink his teeth into. Whenever the film focuses on Coxman it becomes dull and lifeless. He is a catalyst for the rest of the film’s story arcs though and luckily those are much more interesting.
In the second half of the film, the focus shifts to all of the more interesting supporting players. We follow our villain, Viking (Tom Bateman), a drug lord who is leading the crusade to stop Coxman from murdering his men. He and his team, while just as violent, provide a more intriguing narrative than Neeson’s bland protagonist. Things get slightly more engrossing when Viking accidentally begins a war with another local drug lord White Bull (Tom Jackson), by killing his son. Their large teams are both charismatic and eclectic, bringing more energy to the film. The casting is excellent, all of the actors take these deeply flawed characters and have a blast playing them.
The one thematic undercurrent I appreciated was the exploration of how a child is impacted by their parents actions. Not so much in the storyline with Coxman and Kyle but the two other fathers in this story. White Bull sent his son on his first drug run, where he gets mistakenly killed by Viking’s gang. In essence, the life White Bull chose for his family ended up putting them in harmful situations. The same goes for Viking and his son, who is the one morally decent character in the film. White Bull wants to kill Viking’s son after the death of his own child. Viking has to live with the fact that his decisions put his son in danger. While the film doesn’t explore this theme much on an emotional level, I appreciate the film provoking my mind at least a bit.
In the end Cold Pursuit was just a decent thriller to me. The first half of the film is long, slow, and awkwardly unbalanced. After shifting focus in the second half, I did find myself more engaged in the story. The large cast of supporting characters give it their all and make you forget about the dull protagonist. Go into the film prepared to feel weird. If you can make it through the boring, gruesome first act and the abysmal attempts at humor, the second half will get your blood pumping just a bit.