In 2014 there was a black comic thriller from Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland called Kraftidioten. Its literal translation means power idiot. Use it in a sentence and you’re calling someone a dumb son-of-a-bitch. Give it emphasis and you might as well be saying, you’re a f******g idiot.
It was a huge success on its home turf and a big one among the remaining Scandinavian countries. When shown in America with a mostly moderate following, generally by foreign movie cineastes, the title became In Order of Disappearance. But its offbeat tale of an ordinary guy getting revenge on gangsters, told with a huge dose of gallows humor, not to mention a healthy foreign market box-office, was good enough to warrant an American remake.
Following the same path as the late director George Sluizer who scored big with his 1988 atmospheric thriller from The Netherlands The Vanishing, then directed the 1993 American remake himself (though with less success; the film did its own vanishing act shortly after release), director Moland has done the same and helmed the new English language version, now called somewhat generically Cold Pursuit.
The frozen, snow laden areas of a fictional ski-town of Tyos, Norway is now Kehoe, Colorado, and the Serbian gangsters seeking their own revenge on the Norwegian locals are now Native Americans, but everything else is pretty much the same, including the irreverent humor delivered deadpan. Imagine Tarantino meets The Coen Brothers and you’ll be close. In fact, you can just imagine how the screenwriting pitch at StudioCanal went; it’ll be Pulp Fiction meets Fargo with a touch of True Romance for a climax.
Playing the role made famous by Stellan Skarsgard is Liam Neeson. He’s Nelson Coxman, a snowplower who describes the duties of his job as one who simply keeps a strip of civilization open for people. In other words, he clears the road in order for tourists to get to their ski resort. Coxman lives a contented though hardworking life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and his son Kyle (Micheal Richardson, Neeson’s real-life son). But when Kyle is found dead from a heroin overdose, the Coxman’s lives are torn apart. “We didn’t know our son,” cries Grace, accepting the pathologist’s report. But Nelson’s not buying it. “He wasn’t a druggie,” he insists.
Just at the moment when all feels lost and Nelson is about to take his own life, he suddenly comes across a piece of information that changes everything. As suspected (and as we already knew having previously witnessed the kidnapping by a bunch of gangsters), Kyle was murdered; an innocent party to a drug deal gone wrong. Fueled by new-found adrenaline born of anger and an unrelenting desire for revenge, not to mention a really powerful right arm, the Colorado snowplower, the man who had earlier received Kehoe’s Citizen of the Year award, follows a lead. It takes him to a ne’er do well called Speedo, who, after a Coxman less-than-subtle styled interrogation, gives the citizen of the year another lead, then promptly ‘disappears.’
It’s a pattern that continues. Coxman gets another name, beats him to a pulp, gets a further lead, then has the man ‘disappear.’ He wraps the bodies in chicken wire then throws them into the frigid running rivers of Colorado. The holes in the wire allow the fish to eat them.
As the body count climbs and a turf war between rival Colorado gangs spirals out of control with the snowplower lost somewhere in the middle, like the 2014 Norwegian original, the death of each character is given an obituary; the screen goes black followed by the listing of the victim’s name, his gangster moniker, and a corresponding religious cross, as in Steve Miller ‘Speedo’ or Jeff Christenson ‘Santa.’ “What’s with all the nicknames?” asks Coxman while seeking advice from his now-retired ‘connected’ brother (William Forsythe). “It’s a gangster thing,” the brother informs, while explaining that his own nickname ‘Wing Man’ was something he took from Top Gun.
The humor throughout is delivered deadpan and often as bleak as the snowy landscape. When Forsythe’s Wing Man asks his brother where he learned the trick about getting rid of bodies in chicken wire for the fish to eat, Coxman replies, “Read it in a crime novel.” During a taxi ride, a hitman called ‘The Eskimo’ (Arnold Pinnock) can’t stand hearing Tammy Wynette on the radio and tells the driver to change it to anything else, “Except Kanye.” There’s even a lengthy Pulp Fiction inspired story told by one gangster to another while waiting in a car involving a motel, a chambermaid, and a suspiciously placed twenty dollar bill. In fact, almost every character has a quirk about them in one way or another, but as amusing as much of it is, it can also become too self-referential for its own good. When a young boy, the son of the film’s principal gangster, is kidnapped by Neeson’s Coxman, instead of fearing the snowplower, he snuggles into him before sleep and asks, “Do you know the Stockholm Syndrome?”
There are also several unresolved setups. Among them, Emmy Rossum plays a uniformed detective who always appears to be on the verge of cracking the mystery of the disappearing gangsters, but it goes nowhere. And after the initial opening, Laura Dern’s grieving mother Grace is never seen again. She’s not even mentioned. You have to assume there was a marital split after the murder of the son, but there’s nothing said or done to indicate exactly what occurred. Like those bodies in the freezing river, she just disappears. There are even questions left at the fade out. There’s a black comic payoff to a previous moment that occurs during the final few seconds, but it’s not funny enough to close the film without audiences wondering, wait, is that it?
Maybe the deadpan humor was funnier when spoken in a foreign language and read in subtitles. Perhaps the slow pacing of the film simply came across better in a Scandinavian setting. But in doing his best to keep intact for American audiences what worked for Norwegians and keeping true to the spirit of the original, director Moland’s delivered a loss in translation.
As a thriller, the film plods; as a comedy, it labors. Good black comedy should give belly laughs. Here it never rises above a smile (unless you see the film with a friend or you’re in a crowd, then, like all in a group mentality, you’ll laugh a little louder than you normally would if alone). Hearing The Pretenders’ Christmas song 2000 Miles on the soundtrack as Coxman tosses the body of a gangster called ‘Santa’ into the river is kind of funny, but not that much. Ultimately, Cold Pursuit is a farce played in slo-mo. It could use a shot of that new-found adrenaline Liam Neeson’s character suddenly discovered.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 118 Minutes