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'Cold Pursuit' review: Liam Neeson's latest is a blackhearted, blood-splattered mess

Liam Neeson stars in the action thriller "Cold

Liam Neeson stars in the action thriller "Cold Pursuit." Photo Credit: Lionsgate/Doane Gregory

PLOT A snowplow driver searches for the men who killed his son.

CAST Liam Neeson, Laura Dern

RATED R (very strong violence)

LENGTH 1:58

BOTTOM LINE Neeson's latest action-thriller is an ice-hearted comedy that giggles at violence and shrugs at kidnapping. Not cool.

“Cold Pursuit,” the latest film featuring Liam Neeson as a distraught parent delivering rough justice, is not the hard-hitting action-thriller you might expect. Yes, Neeson plays a taciturn snowplow driver, Nels Coxman, who begins tracking down the criminals who killed his son. Unexpectedly, though, “Cold Pursuit” is a comedy — albeit a blackhearted and blood-splattered one.

Initially, that is not made clear. “Cold Pursuit” invites us in with scenes of Nels and his wife, Grace (Laura Dern), in their cozy cabin in Kehoe, a fictional town outside Denver. When their son, Kyle (Micheal Richardson), an airport worker, is killed by drug dealers — why, exactly, is never made clear — the Coxmans' marriage falls apart and Nels nearly commits suicide. So far, so not funny.

Only slowly does it dawn that “Cold Pursuit” wants to be a bloody comedy of-errors, a la the Coen brothers, with eccentric characters and a nasty sense of humor. The criminals all have nutty nicknames — Speedo, Santa, Bone — and whenever one dies, his name appears on the screen with a symbolic little crucifix. A couple of cops, Gipsky (John Doman) and Dash (Emmy Rossum), feel like nods to “Fargo.” Midway through, the film is suddenly commandeered by an ensemble of American Indian criminals who complicate the plot but have nothing at all to do with Nels. When George Fenton's noirish score begins incorporating indigenous music, it feels like we've completely changed films.

Director Hans Petter Moland, remaking his original 2014 Norwegian film with screenwriter Frank Baldwin, seems to feel that excessive violence — stabbings, shootings, beheadings — will shock his viewers' delicate sensibilities. (Maybe in Norway, but this is America, brother. Have you seen our evening news?) The film also treats nearly all of its characters like buffoons. Viking, a criminal mastermind played by a tightly wound Tom Bateman, is less of a monster than a bumbling bloviator; there’s not much fun in rooting against such a dope.

In a recent interview, Neeson revealed a disturbing true story about racist thoughts and violent impulses in his past — an admission that may not help “Cold Pursuit” at the box office. This film creates its own moral problems, though, with its snickering attitude toward murder and even kidnapping (a truly unfunny crime). It’s awfully hard to muster any warm feelings for “Cold Pursuit.”

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