COLD PURSUIT (2019) – Liam Neeson Actioner First Bad Movie of 2019

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ColdPursuit

The big story regarding COLD PURSUIT (2019), the latest action movie starring Liam Neeson, comes from real life, where recently Neeson made controversial comments that some have deemed racially offensive, and there’s no doubt, what he said is indeed racially offensive.

But it was an odd thing to say, considering he spoke of thoughts he once had, thoughts that never turned into actions, and so at the end of the day, Neeson didn’t commit the racially charged crime he thought about doing, but even so, why talk about something you once only thought about?  To me, this was an absolutely stupid thing for Neeson to say.  What was he thinking?

Anyway, since no crime was committed or accusation of a crime made, the biggest thing I saw Neeson guilty of was putting his foot in his mouth. And so as a fan, I still went to the theater to see COLD PURSUIT.

And the reason I absolutely did not like this movie has nothing to do with all the real life drama mentioned above.

In short, of all the action movies Neeson has made starting with TAKEN (2008) this might be the worst.

The story is simple and sounds much better than it actually is.  Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is a humble snow plow driver who quietly and faithfully plows the snowy roads of a ski resort community just outside Denver, Colorado. He’s so appreciated that at the beginning of the movie he is awarded the town’s “Citizen of the Year” award. Nels lives a modest, happy life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern).

All is good until their adult son is murdered by a powerful drug lord who lives in Denver, which is a big no-no, because if there’s one thing every movie fan knows, you don’t mess with the relative of a character played by Liam Neeson. So, yes, the rest of the movie is about Nels seeking vengeance for his son’s murder and taking on the powerful drug lord and his henchmen.  As I said, this one sounds better than it is.

The biggest problem with COLD PURSUIT is its script by Frank Baldwin, based on the screenplay by Kim Fupz Aakeson to the 2014 Danish film IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE. Rather than being a straightforward action thriller, COLD PURSUIT tries to be a dark comedy but fails miserably.

The film starts off well. I enjoyed its set-up and getting to know Nels and his wife Grace. And since I enjoy Liam Neeson and Laura Dern, I was looking forward to seeing these two in this movie, but that’s not how things unfold, as Dern’s character pretty much disappears from the story.

Plus, with Nels being a snow plow driver and a hunter, you’d think that he’d use these skills in getting back at the people who killed his son, but the film’s idea of his skill set is driving a snow plow and using a gun. Not exactly all that specific.

Strangely when the film should have gotten better, when Nels sets his sights on revenge, it gets worse. The biggest culprit is its misplaced sense of humor. The gimmick in this film is to place each deceased character’s name on the screen after their death, and the hope here seems to be that if the filmmakers do it enough (there are a lot of deaths in this movie) it will become funny. Nope. It wasn’t funny the first time, and it’s not funny later.

Now, I have no problem with a dark comedy, especially one about murder, but this one doesn’t work. The characters, including Nels, are all so superficial I didn’t care about any of them. And as the story goes along, Nels actually takes a back seat to rival drug gangs who are trying to wipe each other out. The result of this mess is a film that kinda glorifies murder. People are killed left and right and then the film tries to have fun with their deaths. If you’re going to take this approach, you either have to be really funny or at least have characters fleshed out enough that you feel something when they die. This film does neither.

Liam Neeson is okay as Nels Coxman, but his performance here is nothing we haven’t seen him do before, and frankly, he’s done it much better before. Also, Nels is a cold fish who displays about as much emotion avenging his son’s death as a man standing in the middle of a frozen lake ice fishing.

Laura Dern’s talents are completely wasted in a throwaway role as Nels’ wife Grace. Midway through the film she leaves Nels and that’s it for Dern. She leaves him a note, and it’s a blank piece of paper, which pretty much sums up the emotional impact of this movie.

The main villain “Viking”— and yes, all the bad buys here have nicknames, a la TOP GUN (1986), and in fact, one of the names comes right from that movie— as played by Tom Bateman is one of the most annoying bad guys I’ve seen in a movie in a while. Viking and the rest of his henchmen are about as believable as cartoon caricatures.

Two of the more notable performances belong to John Doman and Emmy Rossum who play two members of local law enforcement, but their storyline goes nowhere, and so they barely make an impact.

There’s also a completely ridiculous subplot involving Viking’s young son, which goes beyond ludicrous once Nels abducts the boy and the two become fast friends. Huh? As I’ve been saying, this one’s pretty bad.

COLD PURSUIT was directed by Hans Petter Moland, and things are so bad here that not even the beautiful snowy mountains of Colorado can save this one. It’s  all very scenic, but the film doesn’t really use its frigid landscape to tell its story.

Plus I really wanted to know more about Neeson’s character. I wanted to know why he felt he could take on drug mobsters and succeed. The film never really gets inside Nels’ head. In fact, for large chunks of the movie, Nels disappears, and the film focuses on the various drug henchmen with all their nicknames.

Ho hum.

At the end of the day, COLD PURSUIT is a cold and rather ugly film. The death count is high, yet none of the demises have any impact, with the possible exception of the very last one, which comes a little too late in the game.

In the interest of full disclosure, the audience I saw this one with, albeit a sparse one, seemed to like the movie more than I did. They chuckled on occasion. I did not.

For me, this one’s an easy call. COLD PURSUIT is the first clinker for 2019.  I suggest giving it the cold shoulder.

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THE COMMUTER (2018) – Liam Neeson Action Formula Wearing Thin

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Vera Farmiga and Liam Neesson in THE COMMUTER (2018)

Like many of you, I’ve been a big fan of the Liam Neeson action movies, going all the way back to TAKEN (2008).

It’s been a fun ride, but these films are starting to wear out their welcome.  The trailers for THE COMMUTER didn’t look so hot, and the initial reviews were pretty bad, but being a Liam Neeson fan, I still wanted to check it out.

Yup, the formula is definitely wearing thin, but that being said, I still enjoyed THE COMMUTER, even though I pretty much didn’t believe any of it.

In terms of storytelling, THE COMMUTER gets off to a strong start as former cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) abruptly loses his job, as he is fired without warning, which leaves him a mess since he’s 60 years old with two mortgages and a son who’s about to go off to college. This plot point resonates because any family these days with kids getting ready for college knows firsthand how insanely expensive it is, and how unfortunately where a person can go to college often has less to do with ability than with finances.

Michael rides the train every day into and out of New York City, and on this particular day, on his way home, he meets a strange woman Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who tells him she’s a behaviorist who studies human behavior.  They strike up a conversation and she throws a hypothetical situation his way: would he be willing to do something without knowing its consequences if he were paid $100,000. Of course, on this particular day, without a job, Michael is intrigued, but he’s hardly interested, until Joanna intimates that she’s not kiddng and tells him $25,000 is hidden in the bathroom, and the rest is his after he finishes the job, which is to locate one passenger and place a tracking device in the passenger’s bag.

After Joanna departs the train, Michael’s curiosity gets the better of him and he checks out the bathroom, where he finds $25,000 in cash.  He decides to pocket the money and get off the train, but before he does another stranger warns him that he’s being watched and if he doesn’t do the job, they will kill his wife and son. Flabbergasted, Michael resists at first but he quickly learns that the powers that be are watching his every move and they will kill without hesitation if he doesn’t do what they want, which of course, begs the question: if they’re so all knowing and all powerful, why do they need Michael’s help in the first place? If they can kill at will without detection, why can’t they find one guy on a train?  You’d think they’d easily be able to do this themselves.

Anyway, Michael finds he needs to use all of his former police detective skills to locate the unknown person, all the while trying both to learn why this person is being targeted and how he can outsmart Joanna and her cohorts.

As action thrillers go, THE COMMUTER is pretty gimmicky.  With the exception of the initial plot point where Michael loses his job, I don’t think I believed any of it.  The idea that these people would go to such lengths to get rid of one person, and by such lengths I mean killing multiple people, coercing a former cop Michael to do a nearly impossible job, and eventually working to derail an entire train, is very hard to swallow.  One contracted hit man could have easily done the job without any fanfare.

Still, Liam Neeson is fun to watch, and I for one definitely enjoyed watching him.  He still makes for a likable hero who’s easy to root for, and Neeson remains a strong enough actor to carry a movie like this.  However, that being said, he’s certainly getting up there in years, and so it’s getting a bit more difficult to believe that he’s as physically unstoppable as his character is supposed to be here.

The film also boasts a veteran supporting cast, although no one really has a whole lot to do, other than Neeson.  I’m also a huge Vera Farmiga fan, and she’s excellent in her brief screen time, but sadly, it is brief.  And while she’s sort of the main villain, she’s never on screen enough to make much of an impact, which is too bad, because if she were, this would have been a much better movie.

Patrick Wilson plays Michael’s former police partner Alex Murphy, and Jonathan Banks, Mike on both BREAKING BAD (2009-2012) and its prequel BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-2018), plays Michael’s friend and fellow train commuter Walt.  And both Sam Neill and Elizabeth McGovern have thankless roles, Neil as police Captain Hawthorne and McGovern as Michael’s wife Karen.

THE COMMUTER was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed the Liam Neeson films UNKNOWN (2011), NON-STOP (2014), and RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), all of which are better movies than THE COMMUTER.  The film does open with a creative commuter montage that sets the tone that this is going to be a slickly made thriller, and it is, as there are some vicious fights on the train and an exciting train derailment climax that unfortunately doesn’t look all that real.  In fact, the special effects of the crash look rather cartoonish.

Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle all wrote the screenplay which can be summed up with one word: contrived.  As I said, little in this movie was believable, and the main plot point of Michael being coerced to find an unknown person or else his family will be killed plays exactly like the plot point of a bad movie rather than something that would really happen in real life.  The dialogue is okay, with Neeson getting all the good lines, but even those aren’t really all that memorable.

If you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you’ll probably find THE COMMUTER fairly entertaining.  I did. But other than Neeson, and Vera Farmiga’s brief screen time, there isn’t much else to like about THE COMMUTER.  It’s really not that great a movie, and it’s certainly not a credible thriller.

Like its main character, Michael MacCauley, THE COMMUTER is a bit worn and weary, but while Michael has enough left in the tank to fight back, the same can’t be said for the movie.

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Movie Lists: The STAR WARS movies

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Empire Strikes Back poster

Welcome back to the MOVIE LIST column, where we look at lists pertaining to the movies.

Up today, the STAR WARS franchise.  Yep, with the latest STAR WARS film STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) set to hit theaters today, December 14, 2017, here’s a look at how the previous films in the series rank:

  1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

For my money, this first STAR WARS sequel is the best of the lot.  Following upon the heels of the original, EMPIRE is darker, bolder, and more innovative and exciting than its predecessor. All three leads- Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher grew into their roles here, and much more is revealed about one of the screen’s greatest villains, Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones providing the voice).  John Williams’ iconic Darth Vader theme, the Imperial March, is introduced here, making it hard to believe it didn’t exist in the first movie.

In a brilliant stroke, to keep things fresh, George Lucas stepped out of the director’s chair in favor of Irvin Kershner, something Lucas would stumble over in the second trilogy with his ill-fated decision to direct all three films.  EMPIRE also has the best script in the series, written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.  Before ROGUE ONE came along, EMPIRE had the darkest ending in the series, with its now infamous reveal about the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Also the film that introduced Yoda.

Star Wars poster

2. STAR WARS (1977)

The movie that started it all.  I still remember when this one first hit the theaters, back in the summer of 1977.  When I saw this on the big screen that summer at the age of 13, I was blown away. Having grown up watching STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE on TV, I had never seen such amazing special effects before.

Instantly drawn into the story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, I was along for the ride from the get-go, and I still haven’t forgotten the awe and wonder I felt entering the strange alien worlds and spaceship of this ultra imaginative movie.  Also featured my all-time favorite actor, Peter Cushing, playing the villain, Grand Moff Tarkin, which gave me the second opportunity to see Cushing on the big screen, the first being the inferior Amicus adventure AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976).

Rousing iconic score by John Williams, and brilliant directing by George Lucas make this one a classic for the ages.  It’s now called STAR WARS: EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE to fit in with the entire trilogy, but back in the day when it first came out, it was just STAR WARS, and rightly so.

3. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

After a sub par and inferior second trilogy, STAR WARS returned to the top with this energetic and exciting new entry by writer/director J.J. Abrams, who earlier achieved similar success with his excellent STAR TREK reboots.  The spirit of STAR WARS seemed to be missing in the previous trilogy, but it’s back and stronger than ever here.

With the return of familiar characters like Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Princess Leia, and newcomers like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), this sequel which takes place thirty years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, completely recaptures the magic of the original STAR WARS movies.  My only gripe is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) doesn’t appear until the very end.

rogue one poster

4. ROGUE ONE – A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

The first stand-alone STAR WARS movie was a mixed bag for me the first time around.  I thought the film did a poor job with character development which was a major deal here since the film contains nearly all new characters.  But I liked this one much better upon a second viewing.  Its story, the tale of how the rebels stole the Death Star plans used by Luke Skywalker and the rebels in the original STAR WARS film, is a good one, and it even addresses the long-standing joke of how inept the Empire must have been to have built the Death Star with a glaring weakness that the rebels could expose so easily.  ROGUE ONE makes it clear that this supposed weakness was not by accident.

Excellent storytelling gets better as the movie goes along as it moves towards its powerhouse finale, the darkest by far in the entire series.  Also notable for its sometimes impressive CGI re-creation of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin.  On the big screen, I thought he looked cartoonish, but at home on my TV screen he looked a bit more genuine.

 

5. STAR WARS: EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

I am really not a fan of this second series, but I do like the third and final film in which we learn how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.  Part of the problem with this series is it’s a prequel. Another part is that it simply takes too long to tell its story.  The three movie arc was unnecessary.  Had REVENGE OF THE SITH been a standalone film, it would have been better received.

Other problems with this series: a lack of imagination and fun.  They are about as cold and lifeless as one can get in a supposed adventurous science fiction fantasy tale.  They also feature a stoic unimaginative actor in the lead as young Anakin, Hayden Christensen.

But I do like this third film, mostly because it succeeds in convincingly telling its tale of just why Anakin Skywalker chose the Dark Side in the first place.  In short, the Jedi were jerks to him, while the Emperor filled his head with flattery.  Most of the film is uneven, but the final reel is the best part and well worth the wait.

 

6. STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

Completely unnecessary movie in the STAR WARS canon, notable mostly for Christopher Lee’s presence as Count Dooku, and Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the increasingly tragic Padme.

 

7. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

I know, a lot of people love this one, but I’ve disliked it since I first saw it at the theater.  Following the masterful EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, JEDI is clunky in its story telling, struggles with pacing, and doesn’t come close to capturing the awe and magic of the first two movies.  When the film should have been reaching new heights in its tale of light vs. dark, it instead reverts to cutesiness, introducing us to huggable Ewoks, who do nothing but take away valuable screen time from Luke and Darth Vader.

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Darth Maul, one of the few good things about THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999).

8. STAR WARS: EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

My least favorite of the series.  Did we really need an entire movie about Anakin Skywalker’s life as a little boy?  In a word, no.

Notable for Liam Neeson’s presence as Qui-Gon Jinn, and the very cool villain Darth Maul.  Yep, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul are by far the two best characters in this movie, and they are both promptly killed off.  Shows you how good this movie is.

And there you have it.  A quick take on the STAR WARS movies.  I’ll be sure to update this list shortly to include the latest movie, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017).

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014) Stylish but Standard Vehicle for Liam Neeson

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a-walk-among-the-tombstones-poster-Here’s my review of the new Liam Neeson movie A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014), published earlier this week at cinemaknifefight.com:

 

MOVIE REVIEW:  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014)

By Michael Arruda

 

You already know what I’m going to say.

“This movie looks just like TAKEN (2008).”

 That’s because that’s what everyone says when you mention A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES.

Yup, Liam Neeson is back in another thriller, in yet another variation of his hit movie TAKEN, this time as a former cop turned private investigator who’s helping other people find their kidnapped loved ones, in the poetically titled A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, and as such, it’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before.  The question is, is it any good?  Or is the Liam Neeson action-thriller formula finally growing stale?

Read on.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES begins in 1991 where New York City cop Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is drinking in a bar when it’s held up by some thugs who shoot the bartender.  Bad move when Neeson is in the room.  Scudder promptly chases these bad guys through the streets and shoots them all dead.  Unfortunately, a stray bullet from his gun kills a young girl.

The action switches to 1999— so we get to re-live the 90s and hear lots of Y2K references—where Scudder is now a private investigator because the pain of killing that little girl was too much for him to bear.  He regularly attends AA meetings and has been sober since that fateful day, since he blames the death of that girl on alcohol because he was drunk.  Actually, for a drunk guy, he could shoot pretty well as he blew away the robbers with ease, and from a distance.

Anyway, one of the guys he knows through AA, Howie (Eric Nelson), approaches him and tells him his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) needs his help.  Scudder agrees to see Kenny and learns that Kenny’s wife was kidnapped and then murdered, chopped up into little pieces, even though Kenny paid the ransom money.  Kenny wants Scudder to find the men who did this.  It’s obvious to Scudder that Kenny is a drug dealer, and so he declines to take on the case.

But Kenny is persistent and shows up at Scudder’s door with more details of his wife’s kidnapping and subsequent murder, and he leaves a cassette tape with Scudder that the kidnappers sent him, an audio record of the tortures they put his wife through.  Scudder listens to the tape, and sickened by the type of monsters these guys obviously are, he changes his mind and decides to take on the case and go after the men who murdered Kenny’s wife.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES plays out exactly the way you would expect it to.

First off, as you would expect, the best part of this movie is Liam Neeson.  Take Neeson out of the equation, and this film just isn’t as good, pure and simple.  Sure, it’s nothing we haven’t seen Neeson do before, but he does it so well.  He’s a compelling action hero who is believably tough and sincere at the same time.  He has a no-nonsense demeanor that penetrates even the most hardened criminal.  You have these two sickos who are terrorizing the drug dealing scene by kidnapping and murdering wives and daughters, and they have the drug dealers shaking in their boots, but when Neeson tells these goons to go screw themselves, and that he’s coming after them, they’re suddenly the ones who are trembling.  He immediately changes the balance of power, and it’s all very credible.

Neeson is great in these roles, and he’s excellent yet again here as Matt Scudder.  This is the second time the character Matt Scudder has appeared in a movie.  Jeff Bridges played Scudder in the 80s actioner EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986), a film I probably haven’t seen since 1986.  I remember liking it, and I believe it’s the first film in which I saw Andy Garcia, as he played a villainous drug lord.  The character of Matt Scudder comes from the series of novels by Lawrence Block.

Neeson isn’t alone either in terms of quality acting performances here.  David Harbour and Adam David Thompson both make creepy and formidable adversaries for Scudder.  As Ray and Albert, the two sickos who seem to enjoy torturing their victims even more than collecting their money, Harbour and Thompson are two of the better screen villains I’ve seen this year, especially Harbour.  These guys both deliver devilishly disturbing performances.

Dan Stevens isn’t bad as victimized drug dealer Kenny Kristo, nor is Eric Nelson as his junkie brother Howie.  But the other actor who stands out is Olafur Darri Olafsson as the graveyard caretaker James Loogan.  His few scenes are all memorable, as he plays this offbeat guy who you just don’t feel right about.  You know there’s just something not quite right about him, or as Neeson’s Scudder says at one point, “You’re a weirdo.”  The sequences he shares with Liam Neeson are among my favorite in the movie.

If there’s one thing missing from the cast in this movie, it’s women.  There really aren’t any women in this film, other than the victims, and all they get to do is squirm, scream, and then die.  The film certainly could have benefitted from some female characters who actually spoke some dialogue!

While writer/director Scott Frank has made a stylish thriller with A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, he does have some issues with pacing, as at times the film slows down, and that’s because Frank’s screenplay makes some odd choices.

There’s a diverting subplot where Scudder befriends a young teen named TJ (Astro) who lives on the streets and has aspirations of becoming a private investigator.  Now, the young actor who plays TJ, Astro— Astro? Really?— is fine in the role, but his scenes with Neeson, in fact his entire storyline, seems so out of place in this movie.  It just zaps the life out of the plot and kills the movie’s pacing.  We go from these intense scenes with killers Ray and Albert to quiet scenes between Scudder and TJ— yawn.

When the movie sticks to the plot of Scudder vs. Ray and Albert, it works and works well, but when it steps away from this intense storyline to see how TJ is doing, it falters.  The movie would have been better cutting out this subplot and giving more screen time to Ray and Albert.

Also, as much as I like Neeson, he struggles with a New York accent in this movie.  In some scenes, he has the accent—which isn’t very good, by the way— and in others he loses it and sounds like his old self.

I liked A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES because I enjoy watching Liam Neeson in these kinds of movies.  Sure, the formula is growing tired, but I’m not at the point yet where I’ve stopped enjoying them because Neeson is still operating at the top of his game.

If you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you won’t be disappointed.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES isn’t bad.  It’s got Neeson and has decent to strong performances by all of the actors involved, and it does have some dark defining moments.  It just gets sidetracked by a subplot that kills the momentum the rest of the story builds.

I give it two and a half knives.

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