Thursday, February 14, 2019

Cold Pursuit

Cold Pursuit attempts offer a fresh twist on the standard formula of the Liam Neeson action thriller – a semi-regular fixture in the year’s opening quarter since Taken made him a surprise box office draw in 2008 – but the most surprising twist occurred a few hours before I saw the film. When Neeson inexplicably decided a random junket interview was the ideal place to bring up an incident from his past, in which he contemplated an act of racist violence after his friend had been raped by a black man, he set off a storm that dominated the news cycle for the rest of the week and completely overshadowed the film he was supposed to be promoting.

Perhaps that was inevitable. There isn’t a great deal to say about these films aside from assessing their varying degrees of accomplishment. On the plus side you’ve got the inventive, nimble work of Jaume Collet-Serra – the director of Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter – or the haunting existential drama of The Grey, but on the other hand we have the Taken series, which has grown less exciting and more incoherent with every installment. A decade in, perhaps Neeson decided it was time to poke a little fun at these movies, or at himself. Cold Pursuit is a black comedy in which the body count is a series of punchlines. A remake of the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, the film is about a snow plow driver in a remote, sleepy town who kills his way through a criminal enterprise after his son has been found dead from an apparent overdose. That film starred Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd as Nils Dickman; in the remake, Neeson’s character is named Coxman.

Both films were directed by Hans Petter Moland, and while I haven’t seen the original, a look at the trailer suggests a near-shot-for-shot remake. I wonder if the darkly comic tone was more precise and effective in the Norwegian film, because Cold Pursuit doesn’t really work at all. In refashioning the revenge thriller as a shaggy dog story, the film falls between two stools; it never develops the momentum or tension that the central narrative of Coxman’s hunt for vengeance requires, but by the same token it’s never eccentric or absurd or funny enough for the more comic elements to land. The film keeps detouring away from Coxman to spend time with local drug kingpin “Viking” (Tom Bateman, amusingly smug and petty) – who is attempting to juggle the running of a drug cartel with the raising of his son – and his henchmen, one of whom discusses his tactic of seducing hotel maids by laying naked in bed with a $20 bill resting on his genitals. This is the kind of downtime chatter between criminals that is often described as Tarantino-esque, but here it’s more reminiscent of the seedy, small-time crooks you might meet in a George V. Higgins novel.

All of these characters are destined to be arbitrarily offed, anyway, along with a few from a secondary storyline, in which Viking’s bewilderment at his disappearing henchmen prompts him to spark a gang war with a group of Native Americans. Every time a character is killed, his name and his nickname appears in sombre white-on-black text with a small cross above it (or whatever emblem best represents the departed's faith); a deadpan touch that grows into a faintly monotonous tic, with few of the deaths having any kind of impact, whether they’re played seriously or for laughs. None of these people matter, we’re just marking time until the final confrontation between Coxman and Viking, and such inconsequential secondary characters are dotted all over this picture. Laura Dern disappears early after a handful of scenes and barely any dialogue (although her minimalist “Dear John” letter is a nice touch), and Emmy Rossum shares some amusing repartee with John Doman as a pair of local cops – She’s the eager up-and-comer, he’s the lazy cynic  but their investigations go nowhere and all they do is pull focus from Neeson. These films have generally been at their best when adopting a slick, straightforward approach, but Cold Pursuit seems to be fruitlessly pulling in three or four directions at once.

If Neeson really wanted to find a different angle on the revenge thriller, maybe he should have played up his character’s everyman status more. Coxman is a diligent, humble working man, just a regular good citizen, rather than the ex-cop or ex-CIA operative that Neeson has inhabited in previous films of this type. There’s no evidence that he should be a man with a “very particular set of skills,” and Cold Pursuit might have benefited from playing up the comical aspect of an ordinary man coming to terms with being a killer, but Coxman takes to murder like a duck to water, dispatching people with a brutal efficiency and not flinching at the bloodshed or the moral weight of his actions. On paper, Nels Coxman might have looked like an intriguing twist on the archetypal Liam Neeson protagonist, but the actor just seems like he’s going through the motions. Perhaps the 66 year-old Neeson is growing weary after a decade of action movies, and one wonders how much appetite there is for more Neeson-led tales of vengeance following his recent comments. Only time will tell, but according the Internet Movie Database his upcoming slate includes films called The Revenger and Retribution.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk is only the second screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s work, following an obscure French take on the same novel in 1998, and the spirit of Baldwin infuses the whole movie. It feels like Barry Jenkins sat down with the late author to craft this screenplay, which has emerged as a brilliant fusion of their distinct artistic visions. It’s impossible to imagine a film better capturing the romantic, yearning, angry, incisive tones of Baldwin’s voice, and Jenkins’ attempt to find a cinematic equivalent to his prose has pushed the director and his cinematographer James Laxton to give us a visually rhapsodic experience.

Read the rest of my review at The Skinny