January and February have been traditionally lean months when it comes to new releases, but there is usually some new Liam Neeson action thriller to distract us from the cinematic doldrums. (Of course, this year there was his recent confessional, which contrary to the intent, didn’t win him many new fans.) Last year, there was Neeson’s turn as The Commuter, and while it was reported that it would be his farewell to such action-driven films, happily this is not the case. Cold Pursuit, directed by Hans Petter Moreland, is an American remake of his 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, and stars Neeson as a snowplow driver in a resort town in Colorado whose peaceful existence is shattered when his son dies from a self-inflicted drug overdose. (We know better.)
Neeson soon discovers the truth behind his son’s death, but in order to exact vengeance, he has to go through (as in kill) the rank and file of the local drug cartel, whose leader is played by Tom Bateman; at the same time, Neeson’s actions have inadvertently triggered a war between two rival drug lords: Bateman, as his real nemesis, and Tom Jackson as a rival native American drug lord whom Bateman believes is initially responsible for the disappearance of his own men. (Laura Dern is also on hand as Neeson’s wife, but she isn’t given much to do.)
What distinguishes Cold Pursuit from previous Neeson action jaunts is the dark humor that manifests itself throughout, as well as the number of quirky (if ill-fated) characters that dot the landscape. As I parenthetically noted, most do not make it to the credits, each demise duly noted by a frame containing the character’s name (or nickname) and a cross. These include some very close henchmen, an imported assassin of dubious morality, an unlucky apparel store owner, another henchman who likes to frequent motel rooms with a handy twenty-dollar bill, Neeson’s ex-cop brother (William Forsythe) and his very young wife, to name but a few. Each of these characters is given a vignette (or two), and much of the dialogue is sharp, amusing, and even occasionally poignant. There is even a dogged police officer (Emily Rossum) who has a feeling that “something is going down”, but she is also given too little time to register strongly. Some of the action scenes are brutal, but again, as in Neeson’s The Commuter, much is made of the character’s age and the limitations that accompany it. There are also glimpses of Neeson’s tender side (some other reviews notwithstanding) in his interactions with his chief nemesis’s bullied young son, and a satisfying payoff. Cold Pursuit is one February release that is worth chasing down; you’ll also be treated to some of the most beautiful and haunting cinematography you’ll see so far this year, courtesy of Philip Ogaard, with Canada and British Columbia standing in for Colorado.
Speaking of cinematography, it is fundamentally absurd that the Oscars should relegate cinematography, and editing awards to “commercial break-land,” to be resurrected later in the broadcast (edited of course!) Anyone who appreciates motion pictures knows these are both essential elements of filmmaking, and that these artists deserve to be seen and recognized in prime time.
Having said that, I’ll be the first to admit Roma, written, directed and photographed by Alfonso Cuaron is among the most beautifully and lovingly filmed movies of the year. I will also say that it could also use a good editor, as much of Roma is dramatically inert, with a first forty minutes that meanders too much for the story it is trying to tell. It may be the intention of the creator to immerse us in every aspect of his upbringing and the housekeeper’s life—but it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling cinema. (I’m aware my opinion is not shared by members of the Academy.) and There are a few powerful scenes and images, mainly having to do with Mexico’s political unrest, but there are also scenes that merely repeat what has been seen already suggested (presumably subtly) in the film (domestic unhappiness, economic and social discontent). I bear Roma no malice—it can stay among the nominated features. I wish the academy would have made room for The Death of Stalin, which remains, on second and third viewing, a savagely funny political satire with a flawless cast.
I also finally caught up with BlackkKlansman, which represents some of Spike Lee’s best work yet, and has been nominated for six Oscars. It tells the story of a black Colorado policeman (Another film set in Colorado but filmed elsewhere—Colorado, where are your tax breaks?) who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan, thanks to initial phone conversations with white men who have their own ideas what black men sound like—and a fellow white officer (Adam Driver) who represents him in face-to-face dealings with the Klan. Lee’s film, based on (but not totally adhering to) real-life events is provocative, funny, tense, suspenseful, and unfortunately all too relevant. John David Washington (Denzel’s son) and Driver are terrific, as is Topher Grace as the Klan’s leader David Duke, and Harry Belafonte provides some powerful moments recounting the case of lynching victim Jesse Washington. Definitely worth seeing—either in theaters or on your home screen.