Cold Pursuit

Liam Neeson plays a snowplow driver seeking revenge in "Cold Pursuit."

It’s February in Wisconsin, where we know that snowplow drivers are the real heroes.

For everywhere else, there’s “Cold Pursuit.”

Hans Petter Moland’s black comic thriller stars Liam Neeson as a snowplow driver who avenges the death of his son by taking on the drug lord responsible for his death.

That plot may seem familiar to Wisconsin Film Festival fans, as the original Norwegian version, called “In Order of Disappearance,” and also directed by Moland, played the festival in 2015. With a screenplay by Frank Baldwin, “Cold Pursuit” sticks close to the wry, wintry wit of the original while adding a few new tracks in the snow.

Nels Coxman (Neeson) keeps the roads clear around the fictional Colorado ski town of Kehoe, his massive rig carving through the snow like a great white shark slicing through the water. His quiet, simple life with his wife (a very underused Laura Dern) is disrupted with the news that his son Kyle (Micheal Richardson) has been found dead in Denver of a heroin overdose.

Nels immediately suspects foul play, confirmed by one of Kyle’s friends, who says they got mixed up with a local drug ring that had been smuggling cocaine through the Kehoe airport where Kyle worked. Nels begins to patiently work his way up the chain of command in the drug ring, killing lower-level thugs with names like Speedo and Limbo, working his way toward the kingpin known as Viking (Tom Bateman). Nicknames are kind of a thing in this movie.

It’s a standard revenge-movie plot, enlivened by two things. One is that the mordant wit of the original movie has been transported more or less intact into the American remake. Nels dispatches one thug after asking him whether John Elway or Peyton Manning was the better Denver Broncos quarterback (the answer is obvious), and shares a laugh with another over just how old he is. (Before killing him, of course.) Whenever someone dies in the film (which happens a lot), a black screen shows their name and a symbol for their religious affiliation, as if we’re seeing Nels’ mental checklist.

The other distinctive thing is that there are a lot of characters in this film, and Neeson spends less time on screen than we’d expect. Not only do we follow the different tough guys in Viking’s organization, each with his own distinctive quirk, but there’s a Native American crime family that is inadvertently drawn into a turf war with Viking over Nels’ antics.

Two Kehoe cops (Emmy Rossum and John Doman) putter ineffectively around the margins, trying to figure out why their quaint little ski town is suddenly amassing such a high body count. William Forsythe makes a too-brief appearance as Nels’ ex-gangster brother.

These quirky characters are ultimately a distraction from the main revenge plot, yet I wouldn’t have enjoyed “Cold Pursuit” as much without them. Moland has an eye for the grimly funny detail. What I’ll remember from the movie isn’t the grisly violence, but the little comic flourishes, like a shot of a group of hardened assassins throwing snowballs at each other and giggling like little kids.

Warms the heart, really.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.