Directed by: Hans Petter Moland
Written by: Frank Baldwin
Starring: Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman and Tom Jackson
Classification: 14A; 118 minutes
Toward the end of Daddy’s Home 2, there is a quick gag that almost makes the abomination bearable. After the movie’s characters take shelter from a Christmas Day storm inside a local multiplex, they buy tickets for the a new Liam Neeson shoot-em-up, titled Missile Tow. In the Daddy’s Home Cinematic Universe (Daddyverse, for short), Missile Tow stars Neeson as a tow-truck driver out for bloody, unexplained revenge, complete with a snowy setting and Neeson in Santa pants. The film’s tag line: Get Hitched This Christmas.
It is the one good joke, or joke period, in Daddy’s Home 2, as Missile Tow seems like an entirely plausible production. In the past decade, Neeson has developed his own cottage industry that relies upon him punching you. Well, not you specifically, but anyone who might get in his way, from sex traffickers (Taken) to skyjackers (Non-Stop) to train-jackers (The Commuter). Oh, wolves, too (The Grey). Absolutely no one would be surprised were he to star in a film where he punched tow-truck drivers. Or tow trucks themselves. The more I thought about Missile Tow – and I thought about it a lot – the more I was determined to see it become a reality.
And then a miracle happened: It turned out that by the time Daddy’s Home 2 opened, Neeson was already deep into production on a movie in which the actor plays a snowplow driver who takes on drug dealers after his son is murdered. The title: Hard Powder. Alright, close enough! (The fact that the log-line bared a striking similarity to the 1992 Simpsons episode “Mr. Plow” only further stoked my deeply reprehensible excitement.)
The true nature of Hard Powder is a bit more complicated. First, it’s since been retitled the far less memorable Cold Pursuit. Second, the film is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, starring Stellan Skarsgard. That film’s director, Hans Petter Moland, decided to remake his own work here, transporting the action from the snowy hills of Norway to a Rocky Mountains ski town, and swapping in Neeson for Skarsgard, even though the latter could reasonably headline an English-language film, not to mention go toe-to-toe in feats of late-life bad-assery with Neeson. What’s more, though, is that both films are far less interested in the straight-ahead action of Neeson’s recent filmography, and more concerned with exploring the idiosyncratic details of crime and punishment.
But whether it’s because Moland, with the help of screenwriter Frank Baldwin, has a difficult time translating his work to North America or because I was simply anticipating something more akin to Missile Tow, Hard Powder (I’ve decided I’m not going to call it Cold Pursuit) doesn’t quite click. From its needlessly odd stylistic ticks (every time a character is killed, their name pops up onscreen complete with a little icon denoting their nickname; this happens a lot) to its repetitive visuals (we see the same establishing shot of the highway into Denver approximately 36 times) to its extraordinarily tired post-Tarantino dialogue (if all hit-men talked like this, they’d be busy writing off-off-Broadway plays, not killing dummies for money), Hard Powder is grating, even boring.
The initial set-up is as promised: Neeson plays Nels, a beloved snowplow driver who starts picking off local gangsters after his son is murdered for messing up a drug delivery. At least half the film, though, is focused on Viking (Tom Bateman), a Denver kingpin who is a mountain of eccentricities, none of them particularly interesting. Neeson shows up to do his requisite dirty work – although, to the great dismay of anyone walking into a movie where Neeson plays a snowplow-driving avenger, only one person is even killed by said snowplow, and it’s an oopsie-doodle accident – but he’s a narrative afterthought, a cipher literally driving the story in whatever direction seems quirkiest. Moland and Baldwin are more invested in Viking, his criminal rivals (including Tom Jackson as White Bull, the Indigenous leader of a local gang), and, for frequent and very dry stretches, a pair of local cops (Emmy Rossum and John Doman) who seem as curious about the film’s goings-on as the audience. Which is to say, not very much.
Many talented performers wander in throughout, all to little effect. Laura Dern pops by for about five minutes as Neeson’s wife, though I don’t recall her character’s name ever being spoken. William Forsythe plays Nels’s bruiser brother. Domenick Lombardozzi offers a few sparks as Viking’s right-hand man, who’s hiding a secret that’s intended to be shocking but comes off as cheap. It all feels arbitrary and aimless, especially when the filmmakers decide to wrap things up with a long, wanly executed shootout whose stakes couldn’t feel lower.
As I walked out of Hard Powder (please don’t correct me; let me have this one thing!), I returned to Missile Tow. But also to another sight-gag from the 2016 film Keanu. In that comedy, far funnier than Daddy’s Home 2 for those keeping score, the main characters also take in a dreamed-up Liam Neeson movie, this one titled Substitute Teacher. Its in-universe details are few, but I’ve imagined a few elements – Neeson takes a job at a private school after the death of his family, only to discover said school is a front for, I dunno, ISIS – that could garner a green-light from a room full of executives. And the more I constructed the wholly fake Substitute Teacher, the less I thought about Hard Powder. And if Liam Neeson wants to punch me for that, fair enough.
Cold Pursuit (not, sigh, Hard Powder) opens Feb. 8