If there are any graduate students out there looking to perform a study on the effects of Liam Neeson on a cinematic project, good news: A control group now exists, in the form of the 2014 Norwegian action-comedy In Order Of Disappearance and its new English-language remake, Cold Pursuit. Aside from a new cast—including replacing Stellan Skarsgård with Neeson in the starring role—director Hans Petter Moland (remaking his own film) and writer Frank Baldwin (re-writing Kim Fupz Aakeson’s script) hew extremely closely to Moland’s original in Cold Pursuit, lifting characters, scenes, shots, jokes, and entire exchanges wholesale from that earlier film. The two films are so similar that it seems pointless for both to exist, given that In Order Of Disappearance is streaming on Netflix at this very moment. But let’s be honest: The number of Americans willing to watch a Norwegian-language film is limited, even if it’s only a couple of clicks away. And besides, it’s fun to watch Neeson growl at someone with a sawed-off hunting rifle hidden in his parka.
Both films open with a stunning, Planet Earth-worthy nautilus of ice and snow leaping in the wake of a hulking machine controlled by our hero, Nels Coxman (Neeson), a snow plow driver who’s being recognized as “Citizen of the Year” of the mind-blowingly scenic town of Kehoe, Colorado. That honor is bittersweet, however. For on the same night that his fellow citizens are thanking Nels for maintaining their link to civilization—and keeping the town’s luxury ski resort accessible to tourists—despite the 10-foot snowfalls that blanket the town in winter, his son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) is abducted and murdered in what appears to be a random attack.
Nels’ wife Grace (Laura Dern) is shocked by the coroner’s ruling that Kyle died of a heroin overdose, but stoically accepts that she never really knew her only son. Nels, however? He grieves in a different sort of way—by hunting down petty drug dealers, killing them, and throwing their bodies over a magnificent waterfall after wrapping them in chicken wire, so they won’t bloat and rise to the surface. (Asked where he got this idea, he casually grumbles, “I read about it in a crime novel.”) The disappearance of numerous foot soldiers inevitably draws the attention of the Denver criminal underworld, and soon Coxman has unwittingly sparked a war between two rival factions: Vegan coke dealer Viking (Tom Bateman), whose taste for green smoothies and whimsical furniture belies a terrifying capacity for violence, and Native American elder White Bull (Tom Jackson), whose family antiques business serves as cover for a more illicit enterprise.
In the original film, the Native Americans were Serbians, and Baldwin’s choice to graft the same character traits onto a completely different group of people does produce some bizarre moments—not offensive ones, just strange. (A few eyebrow-raising details, including the out-of-nowhere comedic reveal of a love affair between two male henchmen and a Thai woman who embodies the “dragon lady” stereotype, carry over from In Order Of Disappearance.) The overall effect is of a foreigner who’s observing American culture from the outside, who’s conversational in a language but not quite fluent. Adding to this incongruous quality is the sheer number of characters in the film, most of which, like Emmy Rossum’s unnamed “detective” and Dern’s mourning mother, are severely underutilized.
That’s not to say that In Order Of Disappearance is a significantly better film, or vice versa. Cold Pursuit is simply a more Hollywood take on the same material, swifter in its pacing and ever so slightly broader in its humor. It’s also more aware—whether through studio pressure or Moland’s own ideas of what makes a movie “American”—of the imperative of celebrity, giving Nels more screen time in order to maximize those precious money-making seconds of Neeson stoically grunting in the face of death. Neeson, as always, is up to the challenge of the brief-yet-bloody action scenes, and uses his natural glower and gravely voice to sympathetic effect in quieter parts of the film. He comes across as a man who’s not quite sure what to do with his hands, unless he’s got a tool (or a weapon) in them.
One thing that does translate is Morland’s extremely dry, extremely dark sense of humor, which manifests at the bleakest moments of the story like whoopee cushions lining the pews at a funeral. Early on, a squeaky wheel on a gurney dissolves an emotionally intense morgue scene in a flood of nervous laughter, and later on a visual gag involving Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” lets the air out of a swaggering tough-guy monologue before it even begins. Multiple violent set pieces take place in pointedly frivolous settings, and there’s even an elaborately set up dick joke with a gunpowder-singed punchline. But the most brutal jokes are saved for Viking, a condescending, bigoted little weasel who’s undercut at every turn by his own men, as well as by the script.
Bateman’s irreverent take on the dapper crime boss is perhaps the clearest statement of Cold Pursuit’s overall stance on the action genre. The film, first and foremost, is rolling its eyes at swaggering machismo, giggling at the hyper-masculine phallic symbol literally plowing its way across the screen with man’s man Neeson behind the wheel. Significantly, this is a tale of male vengeance where the most important woman in his life is neither raped nor killed, and the female characters in the film are uniformly fed up and uninterested in whatever dick-measuring contest these men have gotten themselves into this time. Cold Pursuit knows that killing a man with a snow plow is a ridiculous macho fantasy, and it’s going to give it to you anyway—but not without a wink and a smile.