'Cold Hell' Review [2017 Fantasia Film Festival]

It’s too bad, given how focused and exciting Cold Hell is at its best, that the film spends so much of its runtime devoted to a stream of somewhat extraneous images and scenarios. Scene after scene of character-establishing interactions with protagonist Özge Dogruol’s (Violetta Schurawlow) family, friends, former boyfriend, and a number of others all rehash variations on the theme of her being an independent, no-nonsense fighter, again and again chided for her aggression and unwillingness to go along with injustices she encounters. It’s repetitive, and splits our attention among too many characters and moments that, ultimately, do not much matter to the unfolding story. It’s a blessing that while these elements are not really in useful service of the protagonist or plot, they are minor enough that they don’t do much in the way of detracting from everything that Cold Hell does so right.

The best aspects of Cold Hell are like so many kinds of candy, a medley of high-intensity tropes that combine for something thrilling and wonderful. This film is the story of Özge, a Turkish Thai kickboxer who witnesses a horrific serial killing and thus becomes the killer’s new target. Struggling to find safety for herself and a young girl in her care, Özge is forced to rely on her fists and cunning to outmanoeuvre the killer, evade the police, and find the safety and peace she so badly wants.

Cold Hell is often dark, tense, and brutal, with just enough humour thrown in to allow the adrenals a chance to recover in time for the next shocking display. The duo of Christian Steiner (Tobias Moretti), a police officer who Özge encounters, and his father Karl Steiner (Friedrich von Thun), combine for many of the best laughs in the latter portions of the film, and even prove pivotal to the plot, though this dynamic is given to us only toward the end of the aforementioned deluge of introductions. This comes once the film has developed a sense of focus, and has narrowed the cast down only to the individuals essential to the telling of the story.

When they occur – and I argue they are too few, given their exceptional quality - action fans will love the fight scenes found in this film. They are executed swiftly and brutally, each raining elbow delivering palpable impact, each blow of fist or foot dizzying in its lack of mercy. Unlike many action films, Cold Hell is not a piece in which you will see two equals testing their martial arts against each other. Here, one party will be given great advantage in a fight, and the other left desperate for escape. It’s a perspective on violence that is at times so intense as to verge on horrific.

Thanks to her kickboxing prowess, Özge is the clear favourite in any fair contest, though the hand of misfortune does weigh heavy enough on her shoulders to even the odds, or even give her adversary the advantage in some of the film’s darker moments. That Cold Hell so capably sets up Özge as a fierce and powerful fighter, yet repeatedly places victory outside her reach, could be frustrating, but the direction of Stefan Ruzowitzky and writing of Martin Ambrisch instead make every moment during which she is at disadvantage feel less like a prolonging of the inevitable than a tease of her eventual revenge. There’s no doubt that once she is free to unleash herself on her would-be killer, there will be no stopping her from having her vengeance. The culmination of this pursuit is spectacular.

The value of Schurawlow’s contribution to this film cannot be overstated. Perfectly capturing the wide range of emotion Özge is forced through during the film, and managing a commanding physical presence even when she is often the smallest person in the room, Schurawlow is one of the most convincing and well-rounded action heroes of recent years. Hollywood ought to take notice when looking for the next big thing in action cinema. She has talent enough that she could be it.

Ignore the minor shortcomings of the plot, and focus instead on the incredible intensity and entertainment offered by this film. By the end of its run, you’re sure to walk away thrilled with the spectacle you have taken in, niggling issues of plotting and wasted characters lost in a plethora of blood-spattered, whoop-inducing destruction.