Liam Neeson plays a vengeful snowplow driver named “Nels Coxman” in Cold Pursuit, which is already a hell of a logline. A premise like that writes itself, or so you’d think, envisioning a more phallocentric Taken with improvised snow weaponry, bad guys being stuffed into snow blowers or drowned in ice holes and so forth. “Nels Coxman will fill your crevasse… with DEATH.”
Part of me did want to see a hyper-violent version of the Mr. Plow episode of the Simpsons, complete with awkward geriatric love scenes, but, credit for defying expectations, Cold Pursuit is not that. It’s more like if you took Liam Neeson’s character from Taken (which he has played in virtually every movie since Taken) and stuck him in a European sitcom version of Pulp Fiction where all the humor has been lost in translation. Now it’s just strange characters doing strange things with the vague sense of familiarity; a surreal experience.
Norway’s Hans Petter Moland directs, in a remake of his own 2014 film, Kraftidioten (English title: In Order Of Disappearance), which starred Stellan Skarsgard as “Nils Dickman.” Nils Dickman… Nells Coxman… let’s call the whole thing off. The joke is self-explanatory, and the entire concept of a “plow man” is already sexually euphemistic, but that doesn’t stop Moland from explaining it. “Cocksman, you know what that means right?” asks a lazy veteran cop to his plucky rookie partner as Coxman walks by. “It means a man who is gifted at fornication.”
Say what you will about porn being low brow and hopelessly unpoetic, at least the plot of All That Jizz never ground to a halt while someone explained the entendre of “Peter North.” But See what I did there? is Cold Pursuit’s operating philosophy, half-jokes, fully explained.
We meet Coxman after a hard day clearing roads in the fictional ski town of Kehoe, Colorado. His wife, played by the inexplicably A-list Laura Dern, fastens the cufflinks on the French cuffs of Coxman’s shirt, uncharacteristically fancy for a blue-collar old salt like Mr. Fornicator. He’s dressing up because he’s off to receive Kehoe’s “Citizen of the Year Award,” which, sure, I guess people love the plow guy. At the podium, he gives a speech about how he chose the boring life and it’s suited him just fine. No one is that content in life unless their family is about to get murdered, and the unlucky relation turns out to be Coxman’s son, who turns up dead of a heroin overdose. Coxman is adamant that “he wasn’t a druggy.”
So far the film is exactly what you would expect. Our first inkling that it’s something more comes when Mr. and Mrs. Coxman go to identify their son’s body. With their son sitting on the bottom-most morgue shelf, the coroner’s bumbling assistant takes a “comically” long time cranking the slab up to waist level. Is that… oh, I see, it’s a joke. I’m not laughing but I definitely noticed!
Coxman finds out his son has been killed by a platinum blonde mohawked drug crew flunky named “Speedo,” so he goes and kills Speedo, an event which occurs almost as quickly as I’ve related it here. Speedo is the first rung on the way up a ladder that eventually leads to Viking, a corporate-style failson who inherited the business from his father. Viking, played by Tom Bateman in a voice that sounds curiously like he’s doing a Liam Neeson impression, is an overbearing father to a young son, whom he forbids to eat junk food, screaming the offending ingredients on a packaged cookie. “Lecithin! Baking soda!” (Wait, baking soda? What’s wrong with baking soda?)
He puts the child on a diet of steak and asparagus for every meal. Again, that’s certainly odd but it’s not really a joke. Cold Pursuit almost seems like a contest to see just how many ostentatious screenwriting choices a filmmaker could squeeze in without discernible benefit.
Let’s see, what other quirky choices have we got… Viking has henchmen who are gay, a rival drug gang of Native Americans to contend with, a backstabbing assassin, and a number of minor characters who all seem to have extemporaneous blowjob anecdotes to relate before getting murdered. Most things tend to devolve into murder and/or blowjobs, and by that I mean someone describing blowjobs that happened somewhere else. It’s a poor man’s Fargo by way of the “me underwears” scene from The Room.
At some point early in Nells Coxman’s journey towards retribution, his wife tells him she’s leaving him and she walks right out the door, never to be seen again. This is the most development any female character gets in Cold Pursuit.
To be fair, Cold Pursuit is rarely boring. You’re never particularly invested, but its shrill unpredictability is like a circus performance. It’s impressive the sheer amount of calories being burned despite the lack of believable characters or compelling situations. It essentially defines the difference between “a story” and “things happening.” By the time the credits roll, about all there is to say is “my, that was eventful.”