An international serial killer is stalking the streets of Vienna. Muslim women and prostitutes are falling prey to his murderous past-times. One night, cab driver and Thai boxing machine Özge Dogruol (Violetta Schurawlow) finds the mutilated remains of one of his victims, but she’s more shocked to find the killer still at the scene of the crime, staring at her from the shadows. From that moment on, Özge has a target on her back, but as we discover through her encounters with misogynistic assholes throughout the film, she’s more than capable of taking care of herself when it comes to throwing down.
Die Hölle (Cold Hell) is the latest feature-length from Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky, whose 2007 World War II drama The Counterfeiters won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. For this outing, though, he’s not touting any prestigious accolades. This is a hard-edged action-thriller with bloodstains on its knuckles and a gutter-dwelling sinister streak. And it’s not for the squeamish either, as bones are broken, bodies are set on fire, and throats are slashed. If you enter looking for carnage, you’ll get more than an ample supply of it.
Yet there’s more to Ruzowitzky genre-hybrid than violence and mayhem. The film has a lot to say about Europe’s current divided state on the immigration debate, as well as sexism. Özge is a Turkish immigrant and it’s evident that she’s viewed as an unwanted guest. Almost every interaction she has with people is rife with hostility. Even the cop who’s assigned to the murder case — who eventually becomes her ally and friend — is a bit of a pig at the start. Racism is rampant in this world, and so is misogyny; the killer is a religious fanatic who thinks all women are whores and he’s on some sort of self-appointed righteous crusade to clean the world of the Muslim filth. The ugliness of the world around Özge is truly vile, which makes her fightback against the patriarchy genuinely moving. Schurawlow is a one-woman machine, but she imbues her performance with a sincere humanity that’s genuinely compelling.
Cold Hell is almost like a gender-swapped companion piece to Kim Jee-woon’s 2010 masterpiece I Saw the Devil, a serial-killer epic which saw the murderer in question get more than he bargained for after messing with the wrong motherfucker. Like her South Korean counterpart, this hero takes the fight straight to the Boogeyman and gets the upper hand. If he wasn’t such a nasty piece of work you’d almost feel sorry for the guy, but every time he gets his ass handed to him you’ll likely cheer instead. Furthermore, and continuing with the similarities to Jee-woon’s nailbiter, there’s an action set-piece that takes place in a taxi cab that’s so intense that it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The best action fare thrusts you into the heat of the danger with the characters, and there several scenes in this movie that accomplish this.
As far as high-octane genre fare goes, Cold Hell is almost perfect. The action is gung-ho and brutal, the horror elements are truly intense, and the magnetic atmosphere sucks you in. But it’s also genuinely cathartic, especially in the current socio-political and cultural climate where hate crimes are on the rise and women are finding courage to speak out against their aggressors. For the most part, the melodrama works, but my only complaint is that there’s a romantic subplot that feels shoehorned in. Fortunately, it doesn’t detract from the overall exhilarating experience and this will rank among the year’s best genre movies, without question. It’s the most ass-kicking cinematic rallying call against misogyny and bigotry in quite some time. More importantly, though, it’s just a lot of fun, and if you can stomach the nasty bits you might even find it empowering.