Revenge is a dish best served cold — ice cold in the case of the snowplow operator turned vigilante played by Liam Neeson in Hans Petter Moland’s “Cold Pursuit.” This remake of his Norwegian crime-thriller “Kraftidioten” (released stateside as “In Order of Disappearance”) about a father avenging his son allows Moland to join the ranks of directors like Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”), George Sluizer (“The Vanishing”), and Takashi Shimizu (“The Grudge”), all of whom made English-language versions of their own foreign-language features.
Moland’s offering, however, finds renewed vigor within the additional changes and tonal adjustments. By pumping up the darkly comedic undertones, augmenting the frigid chill of the original, Moland’s terrific, riveting noir-tinged picture distinguishes itself from other rote, reductive remakes.
Having recently won Kehoe’s “Citizen of the Year” trophy, upstanding family man Nels Coxman (Neeson) is a pillar of the community. He’s the guy that keeps the quiet Colorado ski resort area functioning, high-powering through tons of snow to maintain the roadways during the high season. When not running his small business, Nels maintains an idyllic log cabin home in the mountains, a happy marriage to wife Grace (Laura Dern), and a good relationship with adult son Kyle (Micheál Richardson, Neeson’s real-life son with Natasha Richardson).
Then Kyle turns up dead from a heroin overdose. While his grief-stricken wife accepts the cause of death at face value, Nels does not and plunges into a depressive, near-suicidal state — until his son’s work colleague Dante (Wesley MacInnes) shows up at Nels’ shop, battered and bloodied, insisting that Kyle was the hapless victim of a drug smuggling deal gone wrong.
A criminal syndicate had been using the local airport where they worked as baggage handlers to smuggle in shipments of cocaine. Nels takes it upon himself to follow the tracks up the chain of command, funneling his sorrow and despair into fisticuffs, fighting his way through the criminal underworld, inflicting pain on those who perpetrated his son’s cruel murder.
As the bodies begin to pile up, Nels unwittingly ignites a turf war between ruthless, arrogant crime boss Trevor “Viking” Calcote (Tom Bateman) and Native American antiquities dealer/cartel chief White Bull (Tom Jackson). The deaths also, of course, alert the authorities — eager new Kehoe Police recruit Kim Dash (Emmy Rossum) and her grizzled veteran partner John “Gip” Gipsky (John Doman), whose playful banter and wit provide a portion of the narrative’s tension relief.
“Cold Pursuit” isn’t concerned with being the type of non-stop action vehicle where Neeson utilizes elaborate fight choreography and does complicated stunt work. This film’s brutality is grounded in reality. Sure, the unrelenting tension mounts into a climactic shootout, but the rest of the picture is more akin to the razor-sharp precision and gallows humor of “Fargo” than the merciless vigilantism of “Taken.” Nels’ palpable anguish is channeled into his hands, strangling, punching, and gunning down criminals. He’s a regular, normal guy — granted, one who admits he stole his body-disposal method from crime novels.
Moland and screenwriter Frank Baldwin (adapting Kim Fupz Aakeson’s original script) craft a narrative about the reverberating consequences of violence. The filmmakers masterfully explore this theme through the relationships between romantic partners. Viking and ex-wife Aya’s (Julia Jones) relationship is toxic and sour due to his violent job, while Nels and Grace’s marriage falters in the wake of their son’s death — as does another couple better left to discover as one of the film’s surprises.
The ripple effect of all this small-town violence also reverberates out to impact other father-son relationships. How sons internalize the burdens of their fathers is shown through the tenuous bond between cruel, cold Viking and his sensitive, smart young son Ryan (Nicholas Holmes). Viking lives in the shadow of his own father’s legacy as successor to an iconic kingpin, constantly being compared to him. Nels and White Bull both represent fathers dealing with tragedy, each discovering how to handle the different facets of grief caused by losing their sons. Plus, Moland and Baldwin place the consequences in a cultural context, showing the effects of Native Americans’ land stolen and their culture appropriated as made-in-China souvenirs.
On the technical side, Moland and company deliver a restrained aesthetic. Blood splatters pop against the snow banks and stark white wedding dresses. DP Philip Øgaard’s polished sheen lends depth and dimension, beautifully contrasting the grittiness of the narrative. Jørgen Stangebye Larsen’s production design keeps the proceedings from looking flat. Viking’s impeccably clean lair (a modern manse bedecked with glass windows) acts as a shorthand for his character traits. This clashes with our hero’s cozy home, telling us more about who lives there. White Bull’s antiquities warehouse is lavish, with sparkling chandeliers, supple tapestries, and taxidermy. Despite not retaining the same tones as the original’s score, which flirts with a western-influenced lawlessness, George Fenton’s compositions help to give this iteration a slightly reshaped, chiseled identity.