Liam Neeson’s performance in “Cold Pursuit” defies expectations. (Courtesy Doane Gregory)

‘Cold Pursuit’ is a surprisingly thoughtful dark comedy

Notwithstanding reports about Liam Neeson’s racist comments about wanting to kill a black man during an interview to promote “Cold Pursuit,” the film begins on a familiar note. But expectations are made to be dashed.

He plays Nelson Coxman, a snowplow driver in Kehoe, a mountain town a few hours out of Denver. He is given a “citizen of the year” award for his efforts to keep the roads clear.

While Nels claims his award, his teen son is kidnapped and killed, and the body dumped. The autopsy reveals a drug overdose. But Nels knows his son was murdered.

Acting on a tip, he walks into a nightclub and finds a thug, who seems to have nefarious ideas, but Nels pummels him, gets him to reveal another name and leaves him dead.

One clue that “Cold Pursuit” is not going to be a typical Liam Neeson film comes when he gets home. His wife Grace (Laura Dern) is there, and she barely looks at him. He glowers and barks, “Aren’t you going to ask me where I was?”

“Cold Pursuit,” based on an original screenplay by Kim Fupz Aakeson, is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian film “In Order of Disappearance” by Hans Petter Moland, who also directs here.

(That combination doesn’t always work: George Sluizer remade his great 1988 Dutch film “The Vanishing” into a poorly received 1993 Hollywood film. But Moland pulls off the trick.)

The bad guy, a snide, slick, wealthy drug dealer called Viking (Tom Bateman), has an army of henchmen, some of whom he casually murders when displeased. He also deals with a feisty ex-wife (Julia Jones) and a smart, kind-hearted son Ryan (Nicholas Holmes).

Ryan is having bully trouble at school, and Viking encourages him to fight dirty. “I gave you ‘Lord of the Flies’ for your birthday! Everything you need to know is in that book!” he snaps.

Nels keeps killing Viking’s men hoping to get closer to the well-protected drug-lord, but things get complicated. For the deaths, Viking blames a rival drug lord, White Bull (Tom Jackson), who has henchmen that are like American Indian versions of the Sopranos; Viking strikes back and starts a turf war.

Emmy Rossum costars as a police officer trying to make sense of it all.

As the title of the original film suggests, “Cold Pursuit” keeps careful track of a couple of dozen characters as they are either killed or as they simply walk out of the story. Each has a colorful nickname: “Mustang,” “Smoke,” “War Dog” and especially “Wingman” (William Forsythe), Nels’ brother and partner from some hinted-at former life of crime.

“Cold Pursuit” is both bloody and funny. It has a high body count and sometimes the deaths are weirdly amusing, yet death still has meaning. The movie has time for shock, sadness and regret.

Even more fascinating, it questions the audience: Why did you laugh at that guy’s death, but not this guy’s death? What’s the difference?

In so many action movies, death is arbitrary, but here it counts and is accepted, as are the myriad ways humans respond to death.

Meanwhile, the convoluted plot, while clever, grows exhausting, like last year’s multi-character crime-comedy “Gringo.” But “Cold Pursuit” is tighter, sturdier — perhaps because Moland practiced to perfection on the predecessor.

It clings to its wry playfulness, and questions all that goes on, throughout. Perhaps its most brilliant masterstroke is the casting. Neeson takes one look at his familiar character rut and knocks it cold.

Cold Pursuit
Three stars
Starring: Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman, Tom Jackson, Emmy Rossum
Written by: Frank Baldwin
Directed by: Hans Petter Moland
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

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