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The Sad, Awkward History of Actors Torpedoing Their Own Movies by Opening Their Mouth

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Liam Neeson thriller ‘Cold Pursuit’

If a film opens in theaters and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It’s a question worth asking this weekend with Cold Pursuit, the new Liam Neeson thriller, in which he plays a snowplow driver who decides to get revenge for his son’s murder. It’s been almost exactly 10 years since the Oscar-nominated actor reinvented himself as an action star with Taken, and since then, like clockwork, he’s made shoot-‘em-up films of varying degrees of quality. But Cold Pursuit is different, because it’s the first of his movies that will be completely buried by the disastrous publicity campaign that preceded it. Cold Pursuit isn’t even a film anymore — as far as the culture is concerned, it’s now just the thing that inspired Neeson to say Bad Stuff.

For those who somehow missed the exchange, Neeson was doing press for Cold Pursuit when he was speaking to The Independent’s Clémence Michallon about his own flirtation with wanting vengeance: It occurred when a woman he was close to told him about being raped. Finding out the assailant was black, he spent a week walking around in the hopes of being provoked by someone who was black just so that he could “kill him.” It was an honest, albeit terribly misguided reaction, and Neeson’s very public admission has sucked up the entertainment news cycle for days.

It’s also sucked up the movie he was there to promote. Cold Pursuit was never going to compete commercially with the higher-profile Lego Movie 2 and What Men Want, but the film now feels like this sad, weird afterthought. Even worse, it’s tainted by Neeson’s interview, poisoning any ability for the audience to separate escapism from grim reality. In his review for The New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott noted, “Neeson’s recent revelation … that he once came close to acting out his own racist revenge fantasies might spoil some of the fun.”

And for a film that boasts a snarky edge in its depiction of violence — both condemning the urge but also pandering to it — Cold Pursuit now has an unsettling undertone that wasn’t there earlier, making it nearly impossible to “enjoy” Neeson’s character’s particular-set-of-skills violent streak. “Neeson has whittled his winter persona down to a haggard nub of weary anger, purging any inkling of gentleness, melancholy or self-awareness,” writes Scott. “The deadpan extremity of his performance is almost funny, except that in light of what we know now about Neeson’s past, it’s not funny at all.”

There’s always been something simplistic, almost primal, about the cottage industry of Neeson’s solitary-man-who-must-make-things-right thrillers. Films like Taken, The Commuter and Cold Pursuit are largely about aging alpha men regaining their primacy, often by beating up young whippersnappers. The appeal of such stories is obvious, but the trick as audience members is to fool ourselves into believing that these revenge tales are metaphorical. Violence is upsetting and tragic in real life, which is why we prefer accessing it in entertainment, where nobody really gets hurt, except for the people who deserve it.

When I wrote my Cold Pursuit review back in mid-January, Neeson’s quote hadn’t happened yet. I appreciated the film’s attempts to tinker with the Taken formula a little — based on the Norwegian thriller In Order of Disappearance, it mocks its large body count — but I didn’t think too deeply about any of it. I can’t imagine how Cold Pursuit plays now, and I can understand why viewers decided to stay away. Who’d want to pay money to be reminded about what Neeson said? He committed the cardinal sin for someone engaged in escapist, knowingly nasty action-thrillers: He took the “fun” out of vengeance. He made us actually think about its real-world ugliness, which we’d just as soon avoid.

It’s a rare, uncomfortable feeling when an upcoming movie or TV show gets kneecapped like this — its very existence so linked to a bigger, more public controversy that its potentially entertaining properties are drained away before anybody gets to see it. I’m thinking, for instance, of Season Five of Arrested Development, which no longer seemed funny after the allegations against cast member Jeffrey Tambor — a difficult situation only exacerbated by his costars’ incredibly tone-deaf 2018 interview with The New York Times right before the premiere. Suddenly, Arrested Development felt tainted, tarnished, soiled.

But my mind immediately went to the greatest of all recent examples of this sort of cultural avoidance. And in fact, it happened exactly 10 years ago today to a movie called Two Lovers. That title may not ring a bell. The reason it doesn’t is because we as a society don’t remember that movie — what we remember is that, on February 11, 2009, its star, Joaquin Phoenix, went on Late Show With David Letterman wearing a ratty beard, chewing gum and mumbling to “promote” a romantic drama he made with Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw. The publicity campaign got hijacked by what followed:

For days after, all the media could talk about was Phoenix’s weird appearance on Letterman. Was he on drugs? Was he just a pretentious artist? What happened? Only much later did we learn that it was an elaborate hoax cooked up for another film, a pseudo-documentary about Phoenix called I’m Still Here, in which Phoenix played a fictionalized, tortured version of himself. But the damage was done: Because Phoenix’s stunt got so much bad publicity, basically nobody talked about Two Lovers, which is a shame since it was the best film of that year. (And that movie’s writer-director, James Gray, wasn’t thrilled: In 2014, he told The New York Times, “I was upset. Nobody remembers it was for Two Lovers. They remember the shtick.” Not that it kept him from working with Phoenix again: They reunited for the period drama The Immigrant. “[T]he truth is, there aren’t a lot of really great actors, ones you love to work with, and they don’t grow on trees,” Gray admitted. “It is what it is, and we never talked about it. I decided to just move on.”)

The events that doomed Two Lovers and Cold Pursuit were far different — an actorly prank versus a horrible confession of violent racism — but they each successfully torpedoed those movies. Suddenly, it didn’t seem at all worthwhile to support the films that these actors had made. As a result, the films are now these weird cultural black holes born from the negative publicity their stars created.

As much as we talk about how movies reflect society, on some fundamental level, we don’t want the people involved in making them to remind us of how flawed, strange and terrible people can be. We’d prefer they maintain the happy illusion of just being fun, lighthearted dispensers of uncomplicated entertainment. Phoenix and Neeson broke that unspoken agreement when they went off-script. And so, the movies now carry the stigma of their transgressions.

Here are three other takeaways from Cold Pursuit.

#1. What’s the dumbest profession held by an action-movie character?

As I mentioned earlier, Neeson plays a character who is a snowplow driver. Not surprisingly, the internet latched onto the same joke:

For those not up on their Simpsons trivia, “Mr. Plow” is a 27-year-old (!!!) episode of the venerable show in which Homer decides to start a snowplow business.

The idea, of course, is that Neeson’s character Nels is supposed to be a regular guy. How regular is he? Why, he’s just a blue-collar Joe who drives a snowplow! (And don’t worry: We get to see him kick some ass while driving a plow.)

This got me wondering about the weirdest/dumbest professions of action-movie characters. Below is a very incomplete list. But what you’ll notice is that these characters have uncool jobs now but used to be a lot more badass.

1) Cook: In Under Siege, Steven Seagal plays Casey Ryback, who’s a cook on a naval ship. Ah, but he’s no ordinary chef — he’s a chef who used to be a Navy SEAL, which comes in handy when he has to square off against some terrorists. But as he’ll tell you, he’s just a cook!

2) Cab Driver: Meet Kit Latura, the main character of Daylight (played by Sylvester Stallone), who used to be the head of the Emergency Medical Service of New York before he was fired in disgrace. Haunted by the death of a colleague and friend, he now drives a taxi… until he has to save those trapped inside the Holland Tunnel after a deadly explosion. Spoiler alert: His cab-driving isn’t what saves the day.

3) Oil Driller: Yeah, that’s what Bruce Willis and the rest of those guys do for a living before NASA recruits them to take on a killer asteroid in Armageddon. Because deep-core drilling and astronauting are exactly the same.

4) Construction Worker: Truth is, you can buy Arnold Schwarzenegger as a construction worker. But most lunch-pail dudes wouldn’t be able to handle what occurs in the original Total Recall, which finds him taking on shadowy government operatives after he discovers his memories aren’t real. The joke of the film is that Arnold isn’t really a construction worker — he’s a secret agent — but this profession is a go-to occupation for blue-collar action-movie characters. For instance: Dwayne Johnson runs a construction company in 2013’s Snitch.

5) Accountant: Ben Affleck is a financial consultant… and a sharpshooter in The Accountant. Imagine what he could do behind the wheel of a snowplow.

#2. There is only one good Liam Neeson action movie.

At only the most superficial levels, 2012’s The Grey resembles your typical Liam Neeson vehicle. He plays John, a marksman on an oil rig who, along with some of his coworkers, fights to stay alive in the Alaskan wilderness after their plane crashes. If the bitter cold doesn’t get them, the hungry wolves most certainly will.

The Grey was referred to as an “existential thriller” by a few critics at the time, and it’s here where the film really moves away from the typical fare that Neeson has pursued in recent years. As directed by Joe Carnahan, The Grey is a survival story, but it cuts deeper than that, examining how men confront mortality. (The death scenes in this film can be awfully tender in a way that they rarely are in overtly “macho” movies like this.) But The Grey is also about grief — in a way that I don’t want to reveal if you haven’t seen it yet. Suffice it to say that Neeson’s character is harboring a broken heart because of a former flame. It’s only once we reach the end of this film that we understand the full implications of what he’s been going through — and once we do, it’s devastating.  

A few years ago, I interviewed Frank Grillo, one of The Grey’s costars who’s gone on to be in Captain America: The Winter’s Soldier and The Purge: Anarchy. Because I’m fairly obsessed with The Grey, I asked him about what it was like to read the script. His answer didn’t make the finished profile piece, but I held onto it anyway:

My immediate thought was, “This is Deliverance.” It’s about what happens to these men in this circumstance. It’s about, “What is a man? What is life? Why do we wanna exist? Why do we fight to live? Why would we give up living?” These are questions that a man, at some point in his life, starts to ask himself if he’s honest with himself.

That’s actually a great description of The Grey — and an indication of why it’s a far more thoughtful and poignant Neeson film than you usually get from him. If you haven’t seen it, seek it out. And make sure you stay through the end credits.

#3. In a different universe, Liam Neeson would have been Steven Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln.

The 66-year-old actor has been known for his impetuous decisions even before this recent Cold Pursuit controversy. In 1999, just as he was about to be part of the year’s most-anticipated movie with The Phantom Menace, he flippantly announced he was retiring from film acting, saying, “Film is a director’s medium. We [actors] are basically puppets. Producers earn all the money, and you get the sense that they hate actors. The crews are treated like slaves. … I don’t think I can live with the inauthenticity of movies anymore. I don’t like watching them, especially my own stuff.” He eventually reversed his decision, but he’s a guy who lets his emotions guide him — especially when it came to the biggest role he ever turned down.

For years, Neeson was attached to Lincoln, the biopic that was going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who had worked with the actor on Schindler’s List. (That movie remains the only one for which he’s received an Oscar nomination.) The film kept being delayed, though, and during one critical table read in April 2009, Neeson decided he could no longer play the part — a revelation he later told GQ that hit him like “a thunderbolt moment”:

I thought, “I’m not supposed to be here. This is gone. I’ve passed my sell-by date. I don’t want to play this Lincoln. I can’t be him.” So the next two and a half, three hours of reading through it… This extraordinary piece of writing, but it had no connection with me whatsoever. It was a very strange feeling, and it was partly grief. I read very, very poorly by any standards, but then some people come up afterward and say, “Oh, you’re made to play Lincoln.” I just was cringing with embarrassment. Afterward, Steven came over, and I said, “Steven, you have to recast this now.” And he said, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “I’m serious. You have to recast it.” So I went back home … And then I called Steven, and I said, “Steven, this is not for me. I can’t explain it. It’s gone. It’s not…” And he got it. He said, “Okay.” And that was it.

The context is important. Neeson mentions that “it was partly grief” that was affecting him. He’s referring to the death of his wife, Natasha Richardson, who was killed in a skiing accident a month before the table read. Taking on the role of Abraham Lincoln would have been difficult under any circumstance, but in the wake of that tragedy, it’s understandable why he might not have felt up to the challenge.

Instead, Neeson’s friend and Gangs of New York costar Daniel Day-Lewis took on the role, winning his third Oscar. (In the GQ interview, Neeson said, “I was thrilled that Daniel played him, and when I saw the film, I was like, ‘He’s fuckin’ Abraham Lincoln. This is perfect.’ Perfect.”) Instead of starring in Lincoln, Neeson has gone on another path, mostly doing action movies. All of which, of course, leads to this latest regrettable moment.