COLD PURSUIT

Producer: Michael Shamberg, Amett Shukla, Stein Kvae and Finn Gjerdrum
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Writer: Frank Baldwin
Stars: Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman, Tom Jackson, Emmy Rossum, Domenick Lombardozzi, Julia Jones, John Doman, Laura Dern, William Forsythe, Nicholas Holmes, Micheal Richardson, Wesley MacInnes, Arnold Pinnock, Michael Eklund, Bradley Stryker, Michael Adamthwaite, Elizabeth Thai, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Glen Gould, and Raoul Trujillo
Studio: Summit Entertainment

B+

As a general rule, when European directors do English-language remakes of their home-grown successes, the result is pretty dismal; perhaps the most egregious example is “The Vanishing,” Dutch director George Sluizer’s chilling 1988 tale of a man’s obsessive search for his missing girlfriend that he turned into a laughably inept Hollywood bomb five years later. Happily Norwegian helmer Hans Petter Moland breaks the pattern with this reworking of his 2014 movie “Kraftidioten” (released here as “In Order of Disappearance”). “Cold Pursuit” is every bit as good as, and in some ways superior to, the original.

That’s not only because Moland’s skill hasn’t deserted him in the move from Norway to Alberta (where the film was shot), and because it provides a solid vehicle for Liam Neeson to tweak his stern action-hero persona to good effect, but because neophyte screenwriter Frank Baldwin, adapting Kim Fupz Aakeson’s script, has found clever solutions to the problems posed by the geographical change in the plot, and has retained—even amplified—the mordant humor that permeated the first film. The result is a genuine surprise, in the best sense.

The picture is basically a revenge story in the vein of the “Death Wish” formula, the targets in this case being the drug dealers that Neeson’s Nels Coxman blames for the death of his son Kyle (Micheál Richardson). Nels is the reliable snow plow driver in small-town Kehoe, Colorado, which has long depended on him to keep the major arteries open in the worst blizzards. Kyle worked as a baggage loader at the Denver airport, and is kidnapped and killed by a scurvy type named Speedo (Michael Eklund), who makes the death look like a heroin overdose—a conclusion the cops quickly accept despite Nels’ insistence that the boy was not an addict.

Kyle’s death creates a rupture in Nels’ relationship with his wife Grace (Laura Dern), who soon leaves him. In his grief Nels is prepared to commit suicide until Dante (Wesley MacInnes) arrives, beaten up, to tell him that Kyle was murdered as a result of a smuggling operation gone wrong. He also reveals that Speedo was the killer.

Nels takes it upon himself to track down Speedo and take his vengeance—but not before extracting the name of Speedo’s immediate boss in the operation—a bridal-gown shop owner called Limbo (Bradley Stryker), who becomes his next victim. Before Limbo breathes his last, Nels gets another name—of a big guy nicknamed Santa (Michael Adamthwaite), whom he intercepts with a briefcase full of cocaine. He kills the guy and disposes of the drugs.

By this time Nels’ work has grabbed the attention of the dead men’s cartel chief, a preening Denver yuppie called Viking (Tom Bateman), who assumes that the disappearances are the work of Native American cartel boss White Bull (Tom Jackson), with whom he’s long had a tense agreement to respect each other’s territory. (In the original the opposing cartel was Serbian, and the change Baldwin’s contrived here provides ample opportunity for witty cultural observations.) When Viking recklessly orders a hit to retaliate, the victim turns out to be White Bull’s own son, and the act sets off a turf war that will eventually endanger Viking’s precocious, sensitive son Ryan (Nicholas Holmes), over whom Viking–who offers the boy “Lord of the Flies” as a teaching tool of conduct–and his ex-wife (Julia Jones) are constantly fighting, and bring both gangs to Kehoe for a showdown.

Nels, meanwhile, continues his vendetta, enlisting his ex-gangland brother Brock (William Forsythe) to provide inside advice that leads him to hire a hit-man called The Eskimo (Arnold Pinnock) to take out Viking. Nibbling around the edges of everything that’s happening is eager Kehoe policewoman Kim Dash (Emily Rossum), whose banter with her older, cynical partner Gip Gipsky (John Doman) provides a streak of puckish humor that contrasts with the periodic bursts of violence and script’s darker jokes that begin with a slow-moving machine at the Denver morgue and continue through a final ghoulish gag involving a paragliding accident initiated when White Bull and his crew show up at the Kehoe ski lodge—and include adding little crosses with the appropriate names each time another corpse is added to the enormous body count. The bit even continues into the cast listing in the closing credits, which hearkens back to the American title of the Norwegian original.

Moland handles most of the film with exceptional skill. True, the exteriors often look more Nordic than Coloradan, but Philip Øgaard’s cinematography is superb, and while the final confrontation between the two gang cartels isn’t terribly well choreographed, editor Nicolaj Monberg generally keeps the convoluted plot twists comprehensible (including a subplot involving Viking’s lieutenant Mustang, played by Domenick Lombardozzi, that explains why White Bull and his gang show u to do battle with Viking’s crew when they do). Jorgen Stangebye Larsen’s production design is also estimable (Viking’s and Brock’s modernist houses, Nels’ rustic one, the Kehoe ski lodge interior and the antique warehouse White Bull uses as a headquarters are especially impressive), and George Fenton’s score, which mixes sternness with almost jocular lightness, is refreshingly different.

The picture also offers strong acting, beginning with Neeson, who brings his customary toughness to Nels, without having to resort to the super-he-man poses of most of his action vehicles. But Moland secures excellent turns from all of his crowded cast, from Bateman and Jackson, who offer contrasting portraits of crime kingpins (the former as over-the-top as Jimmy Cagney in “White Heat,” the latter as laid-back as Chief Dan George) and the various members of their respective crews, through Rossum and Doman (who ably bounce Berman’s snappy lines back and forth) and even young Holmes (who makes Ryan one of the most likable tykes to appear onscreen in a while).

In short, this is a Liam Neeson vehicle unlike most of those that have made him a later-in-life action star: it’s much more like “A Walk Among the Tombstones” than “Taken,” and all the better for it. “Cold Pursuit” is a worthy English adaptation of its cunning Norwegian source, both exciting and morbidly funny, often simultaneously. If you enjoyed “Hell or High Water,” give it a shot.