Cold Pursuit, the latest Liam Neeson action movie, comes to theaters this weekend and, unfortunately, it’s looking like it will be a low point in Liam’s career. Setting aside the controversy surrounding the film due to the bizarre racist statements made by Neeson while promoting the film earlier this week (which, to be clear, should not be set to the side, as Neeson’s comments were genuinely disturbing and he deserves all the criticism he has faced as a result), Cold Pursuit has a good chance at becoming the biggest box office bomb of Neeson’s career, falling far behind the Lego Movie 2 and What Men Want.
Despite getting positive reviews from the critics, Cold Pursuit is a mess of a movie. It shifts tones several times with no explanation. There is a long stretch where Liam Neeson’s character is not even in the movie. And the abrupt ending feels like the writers just decided to stop halfway through and hope the audience wouldn’t notice. But while Cold Pursuit is by no means a great action movie, it is a great movie for parents, as it cleverly subverted the vigilante action dad trope while pointing out some harsh truths about what how so many parents focus on the wrong things and end up failing their kids and themselves.
For those not familiar with the vigilante action dad, it is one of the oldest and most beloved genres in the world of action movies, alongside buddy cop duo, elaborate heist that inevitably goes wrong, and Die Hard plus the countless shameless rip-offs that followed. As the name suggests, a vigilante dad action movie revolves around a dad who has to kick a whole lot of ass in order to save or avenge his wife and/or kids, who have been taken or killed by a villain who did not understand who they were dealing with. Think Commando, Mad Max, and, of course, Taken. You get the picture.
Warning: There are some mild spoilers ahead. So tread carefully.
For the first half hour, Cold Pursuit seems like it is vigilante action dad in its purest form. Liam Neeson plays Nelson Coxman, a snowplow driver who lives a quiet, humble life with his wife Grace (played by Laura Dern) and his son Kyle (played by Micheál Richardson). However, everything changes when his son seemingly dies of a heroin overdose but Nelson quickly realizes that isn’t really what happens and soon he begins tracking down his son’s killer and leaving behind a lengthy body count. It’s the same story we’ve seen done time and time again by a litany of superior films, except for the moments where Cold Pursuit subtly shows how Nelson would be better off if he looked inward and reflected on his own mistakes instead of hoping a murder spree will fill the emptiness inside of him.
Typically, in a vigilante action movie, the father figure is shown to be saint-like and his devotion to getting justice for his family is unquestionably celebrated. But in Cold Pursuit, it’s a bit more complicated. He is so hungry for vengeance that he doesn’t care who else he hurts and what his actions cost him or anyone else, even the people he claims to love. Over the course of the film, Nelson’s fixation on this boyhood idea of revenge causes his wife to leave him, gets his brother killed, and starts a drug war that leaves dozens dead.
In the end, Nelson is technically vindicated, as he discovers his son didn’t actually die of an overdose and the man responsible ends up dead. However, this is a victory that feels hollow because he also discovers his wife was right when she says they didn’t really know their son, as Nelson learns that Kyle was not a random target. He was killed because he was secretly involved in drug smuggling. But rather than take this dark truth and try to look inward at his own failings as a father, Nelson just kieeps killing. Every parent fears deep down that they don’t really know their kid but Nelson proves incapable of acknowledging this and instead sticks to his archaic notions of justice and parenting.
So while movies like Taken presents the vigilante action dad as an unimpeachable hero, Cold Pursuit sees him as a tragic figure who could have avoided all the misery they experience if they had just taken the time to sit down and spend some time with their kid. Ultimately, this movie has too many glaring flaws to ignore but it deserves credit for shrewdly subverting one of action’s most established and formulaic genres. And while action fans are unlikely to label Cold Pursuit an instant classic, dads may be surprised to find this is one of the most refreshingly original parenting movies since Mr. Mom.