Snowplows were intended to travel in only one direction at a time, but the makers of “Cold Pursuit” have bigger intentions in mind, attempting to meld intense action and dark comedy with a distinct Coen Brothers flavor. If the cold weather and heavy machinery weren’t enough to bring “Fargo” to mind, one of this movie’s many over-the-top deaths involves a snowblower doing to someone what a woodchipper did in that earlier film.
And while director Hans Petter Moland’s remake of his own film “In Order of Disappearance” (Frank Baldwin adapts the original screenplay by Kim Fupz Aakeson) may fall short of its goals, it’s hard not to admire the film’s ambitions — and certain scenes, performances and even one-liners — even as its flaws start piling up.
The setup for the plot feels like any number of Liam Neeson mad-dad-vengeance-dad thrillers of recent years; this time, the “Taken” star drives a snowplow for the ski community of Kehoe, Colorado, which has just honored him as Citizen of the Year for his street-clearing services. (And if this premise reminds you of the “Mr. Plow” episode of “The Simpsons,” you are not a special snowflake.) When his son, a baggage handler at the local airport, is murdered by a drug dealer (for reasons explained in a single rushed, mumbled line of exposition), Neeson’s character starts working his way up the ladder, from flunky to kingpin, to get revenge.
Neeson’s character, incidentally, is named “Nels Coxman,” and several other characters in the film think his last name is just hilarious. And since both humor and a large ensemble have both been missing elements in most of the Neeson omertà sagas, “Cold Pursuit” immediately stands out as a departure. As Coxman begins his killing spree — and each casualty gets a full-screen “in memoriam” card after his or her death — the scope of the story expands outward to include a local cop (Emmy Rossum), yuppie drug boss Viking (Tom Bateman, Amazon’s “Vanity Fair”), Viking’s various underlings, and a rival gang of Native American drug dealers led by White Bull (Tom Jackson).
With such a crowded dramatis personae, it’s no wonder that Laura Dern, as Nels’ wife, gets almost nothing to do before she disappears from the film altogether. Overall, the film’s female characters are severely underwritten, with Nels’ sister-in-law presented as a particularly egregious Asian caricature. Only Rossum’s ambitious policewoman and Julia Jones as Viking’s ex-wife — the only person who can stand up to this slick-haired creep — get the chance to play with the boys on equal footing.
Both the action and the comic elements in “Cold Pursuit” work reasonably well. Neeson can do justifiable homicide in his sleep by this point, but it’s still fun to watch him dispatch goons and scumbags. And most of the film’s gags land, particularly Viking’s helicopter-parent preoccupation with his son’s diet and the pokes at proper language when referring to indigenous peoples.
It’s the combo of dark humor and violence where the movie never quite reaches a balance. To be too jokey removes the stakes of the killings, and to be too grotesquely violent makes the laughs catch in the throat. This isn’t an impossible mix, as the Coens and other filmmakers have proven over the years, but Moland and Baldwin fall a bit short.
Still, the director and cinematographer Philip Øgaard, who collaborated on “In Order of Disappearance,” make the most of their Canadian locations, presenting the sheer masses of snow on the roads and on the mountains as both beautiful and terrifying. And even if it’s a cliché at this point that the bad guy always lives in a Modernist house, the locations department found a doozy for Viking’s lair, boasting not only glass walls but also that curvy design that features no right angles whatsoever.
“Cold Pursuit” won’t end Liam Neeson’s reign of first-quarter action epics, even if it’s not among his best. But ultimately, this might be a film best enjoyed as a series of discrete clips on YouTube, where the thrills and the humor can exist separate from one another.