The greatest trick “Cold Pursuit” pulls is its first: The film casts Liam Neeson (“The Commuter”). The veteran’s presence as the face of the marketing campaign and our point of reference for the film’s early goings is all in service of setting us up to believe we’re in for yet another standard action film about another man with a particular set of skills. This time he’s a snow plow driver whose son is killed by drug dealers who sets out on a quest for vengeance. We’ve seen this before, and the first fifteen minutes of “Cold Pursuit” hit all the clichés we’d expect. Neeson steps out into the night, kills people, growls at people and kills people after growling at them.
Then something funny happens. By all accounts, the story of Neeson’s Nels Coxman is done by the end of the first act. He’s killed all the people he can kill. His personal life is falling apart as a result of his single-minded bloodlust. But “Cold Pursuit” keeps going. And going. It spirals further outward, ensnaring new characters who are set on paths of their own as a result of Coxman’s rampage. By the time you realize you’re in for a different film than you expected, something wonderful has happened. “Cold Pursuit,” it turns out, isn’t just another disposable action flick. Instead, director Hans Petter Moland – adapting his own 2014 Norwegian film “In Order of Disappearance” – spins a crime saga with more in common with “Fargo” or “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” than “Taken.” The result is a deliriously entertaining, gloriously over-the-top black comedy destined to be a cult classic.
Early on, Tom Bateman’s (“Murder on the Orient Express”) delightfully condescending crime lord mentions “Lord of the Flies” as the book that taught him everything he needed to know. What follows, however, isn’t so much a story where “Only the strongest survive” as much as “A bunch of men who want or need to believe they’re the strongest end of screwing things up for a lot of other people.” Moland’s wry sense of humor first begins to make itself known shortly after by focusing on the more mundane aspects of murder and death – the amount of time it takes an especially squeaky morgue slab to be raised to eye level, the difficulty of dragging an unconscious man across an empty parking garage – and then takes over completely as Neeson becomes just one member of an ever-expanding ensemble of players forced to deal with the fallout. The cheeky way early scenes commemorate death sets up an early contender for best running joke of the year.
For his part, Neeson is great in the early goings as the shattered father looking for revenge, but as the story goes on, the script needs him to be something he’s not: A man whose particular set of skills includes a sense of humor. It turns out to be what keeps “Cold Pursuit” from attaining crime farce greatness: There’s nothing all that funny about any of the characters. You need someone like Steve Buscemi’s motormouthed criminal or William H. Macy’s hapless used car salesman from “Fargo” to make this really sing, but apart from Bateman or Emmy Rossum’s (“Shameless”) driven, quick-witted cop, there’s not much about the characters to laugh at. Admittedly, this is only a problem in the film’s quieter moments – the rest, in all its cascading absurdity, is one of the most wildly delightful high points of the young year.