"Cold Pursuit” finds Liam Neeson once again in avenger mode—it’s a given that he’s recapitulating the spirit of “Taken.” A preface opens with an epigram from Oscar Wilde: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” This comedy thriller means to cause happiness in audiences by showing so many stupid killings of stupid people that laughter is the only response. But it’s not. Unhappiness is permitted too. The stupidity lacks smarts in the script department, and the joke wears thin, then turns sour.
The story is set mostly in a snowbound town near Denver. That corresponds to the snowy setting of the Norwegian film this was adapted from—“In Order of Disappearance,” whose Norwegian title, which I can’t pronounce, means something like “prize idiot” or “super idiot.” Neeson’s character, Nels Coxman, doesn’t seem idiotic at all; that’s part of the problem. He’s an earnest, decent man who drives the town snowplow. “I’m just a guy who keeps a strip of civilization open for people,” he says at a ceremony honoring him as Citizen of the Year. What precipitates his killing spree is the loss of his only son—are you laughing yet?—in a drug theft gone wrong. Nels goes after the responsible parties, thereby provoking a local drug war between a cartel run by a yuppie psychopath known as “Viking”—Tom Bateman is actually medium-funny in the role—and a group of Native American gangsters notable mainly for their political incorrectness. (Political incorrectness barely begins to describe Neeson’s recent remarks about racial revenge that have gotten him into so much trouble.)
In any case, one bozo after another dies a garish death: Nels is both a sharpshooter and a pitiless puncher. (Neeson once was an amateur boxer in Northern Ireland.) As counterpoint to these expirations, various thugs and their unpleasant women play out fantasies of wealth while they dispense antic banter, though that’s only filler in between the episodic slaughter, the theory being that as the death toll mounts, so will the laughter.
But what, exactly, is the joke? The naked ghastliness of it all? The murderous mindlessness of it all? The perverse pleasure of seeing bad guys come to really bad ends? Maybe so, if the comedy were deft and the performances polished, but this is ugly stuff done thuddingly. At one point we hear classical music playing upstairs in Viking’s lavish home. One of his thugs says it’s Mozart—Moze-art, he pronounces it—but Viking’s precocious young son, who’s played quite charmingly by Nicholas Holmes, identifies it as Bach: “You can always tell it’s Bach,” the kid says, “because he’s really mathematical.” “Cold Pursuit” is really arithmetical. Multiple deaths, the calculation goes, will add up to big numbers at the multiplex. Could be, but it’s no laughing matter.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.