Tag Archives: B+

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.

HIGH FLYING BIRD

Producer: Joseph Malloch
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Tarell Alvin McCraney
Stars: Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, Bill Duke, Sonja Sohn, Melvin Gregg, Zachary Quinto, Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Duradola, Jeryl Prescott and Justin Hurtt-Dunkley
Studio: Netflix

B+

Steven Soderbergh’s first film made on his iPhone, the thriller “Unsane,” was pretty much a bust, in terms of both story and style. With “High Flying Bird,” however, he proves that the technique can work, at least when wedded to a solid script. Along with the conventionally-shot “Logan Lucky,” it makes you glad that his proclaimed retirement was so short-lived.

The Netflix movie is basically a talkathon, but the dialogue-driven piece by Tyrell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the play on which “Moonlight” was based and co-scripted the Oscar-winning film) is sharp and clever, and it’s presented with an impressive degree of fluidity, both verbal and visual.

The plot is set during a NBA lockout, with the players’ association and the owners at loggerheads. The focus is on Ray Burke (André Holland), a cunning, motor-mouthed agent whom we meet in conference with one of his clients, rookie Erick (Melvin Gregg), at a swanky restaurant. The kid has taken out a loan to tide him over until the lockout ends and he gets his first paycheck, and Ray forcefully explains how that was a mistake. But when it comes time to cover the bill, Ray is told that his credit card has been denied.

The reason is explained by his boss (Zachary Quinto): the agency is in dire financial straits, and employees are being laid off or—in Ray’s case—having their expense accounts put on hold. That sets Burke to work to resolve the impasse, and the film follows him as he proceeds; but it keeps us largely in the dark, expecting us to guess about why he’s doing what he’s doing every step of the way. It’s an effective ploy, which carries a satisfying payoff.

A variety of other characters play important roles in Ray’s peregrinations. There’s his assistant, or more precisely ex-assistant Sam (Zazie Beetz), who’s moved on to the players’ association headed by hard-nosed Maya (Sonja Sohn), as well as an oily team owner (Kyle MacLachlan) who’s standing in the way of a settlement while pretending to search for one. And there’s Spencer (Bill Duke), the sage coach of a youth basketball program to which Ray brings Erick as an honored guest. Also showing up there is Erick’s prime rival Jamero (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), along with his so-called “momanager” (Jeryl Prescott). It’s video of an impromptu one-on-one between the two stars that goes viral and sets off a firestorm that threatens to bring a fundamental alteration in the relationship between players and owners in the sports business.

That business aspect of the NBA underlies the entire script. An unnamed player (Michael Duradola) appears periodically in interview segments to explain how players must behave under the current system for professional reasons, and at one point Spencer succinctly sets out his history of how a game originally played for love was transformed into a billion-dollar entertainment enterprise that makes huge profits for white owners though black athletes do the real work. The premise of “High Flying Bird” is essentially that the reaction to the brief contest between Jamero and Erick suggests that the current business model could be replaced by something more cognizant of where the talent really lies, a realization Ray might be able to use to his advantage—or not.

To be truthful, the analysis of the NBA structure presented in McCraney’s script can be criticized as more than a mite simplistic, and the changes it suggests (in which, as an inside joke, Netflix is mentioned as a possible catalyst) as unlikely. But Soderbergh keeps things moving so confidently (shooting the picture himself, of course, under his pseudonym of Peter Andrews, and editing it under the name of Mary Ann Bernard) that you’re hardly likely to notice—or object.

He’s also secured fine performances down the line. Veteran Duke is particularly impressive as the world-weary coach, but the heart of the movie is Holland, whose razor-sharp timing and machine-gun dialogue delivery make Ray a charismatic ball of fire you can’t keep your eyes or ears from.

“High Flying Bird” might not make it all the way into the cinematic stratosphere, but it comes close enough to capture your attention, basketball fan or not.