Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: A new Liam Neeson potboiler is headed for theaters, so we’re singling out the best movies of the star’s aging ass-kicker renaissance (excepting The Grey, which we’ve already covered for a past Watch This series).
The “Liam Neeson, grizzled badass” archetype quickly became so deeply embedded in global popular culture that in 2014, veteran dramatic actor Stellan Skarsgård was able to riff on it, starring in a Norwegian action-comedy that could be read as a sly parody of all those amped-up Liam Neeson revenge movies. In director Hans Petter Moland’s In Order Of Disappearance, Skarsgård plays a Neeson-esque tough guy named Nils Dickman, who goes on a rampage against local drug dealers when his son dies of a heroin overdose. The twist? Nils isn’t some dedicated lawman or an assassin “with a special set of skills.” He’s an incredibly deadly… snowplow driver.
Moland also directed Cold Pursuit, the 2019 English-language remake of In Order Of Disappearance, with a script by Frank Baldwin. Liam Neeson stars in the Liam Neeson role—now named Nels Coxman. Moland and Baldwin keep the original’s combination of dry humor and extreme violence, equally inspired by the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Elmore Leonard. Much of the movie is about the mundanity of the criminal life: all the time spent sitting around waiting, while talking about sex, food, and the state of the world. The story is set against the unlikely backdrop of a Colorado mountain resort town, and Moland has a lot of fun contrasting the bloody murders with the snowy outdoor expanses and the tastefully decorated upscale homes.
Neeson, though, plays his part without a hint of irony. That’s a somewhat unexpected choice, given that every character and situation in Cold Pursuit is—on purpose—faintly ridiculous. (Also, Neeson has the ability to be both intense and silly at the same time, as anyone who’s seen Darkman can attest.) That said, the actor isn’t doing Taken 4 here either. Unlike that series’ Bryan Mills, Nels Coxman is someone who doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Wracked with grief—and perhaps dealing with a lifetime of pent-up anger at all the rich assholes who think they can do whatever they want—Nels starts indiscriminately killing seemingly anyone in town who’s ever sold dope, and in the process inadvertently touches off a war between two cartels.
Cold Pursuit was only a modest box office success, hampered perhaps by its arch tone, combined with some controversial comments Neeson made during promotional interviews. While explaining how he taps into the focused rage of his antiheroes, the actor told a scary story about an experience he had as an angry young man, when he went looking for any random Black man to hurt, to avenge a friend who’d been sexually assaulted. Neeson was trying to make a point about primal impulses, and about the scourge of racism. But the anecdote didn’t land the way he’d intended.
The point he was trying to make, though, was actually relevant to Cold Pursuit, a movie about how rough macho types can be both laughably cartoonish and genuinely dangerous. Moland and his screenwriters (for both versions) may not have been aiming for a trenchant social commentary along the lines of something like Death Wish, Joe, or Falling Down, where the pissed-off protagonists represent a deeper cultural failing. But Neeson himself does seem to be putting that kind of spin on his character. Nels Coxman isn’t that easy to root for. He’s someone whose first reaction to a deep personal loss is to hop behind the wheel of his plow and destroy anything and anyone in his path.