Dead Man Down is a strange beast of a crime-thriller-drama, best described as something like 21 Grams meets Donnie Brasco – with a Die Hard finale thrown in for good measure.
In Dead Man Down Colin Farrell plays Victor, the member of a violent crime syndicate whose boss, Alphonse (Terrence Howard), is being targeted by an unknown assailant hell-bent on picking the gang apart. Little do Alphonse and crew know, it is Victor himself who is causing mayhem from within their very ranks – as revenge for a great evil done to the former engineer and his family.
Everything is going according to well-orchestrated plan, until Victor meets Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a fellow scarred and lonely soul from the next building who decides to make a connection. Victor quickly learns that Beatrice has darkness running much deeper under her skin than he initially thought, and their relationship complicates an already delicate game of chess, in which one wrong move results in blood being spilt on the streets.
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the man behind the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which made an international star out of Noomi Rapace), Dead Man Down is a strange beast of a crime-thriller-drama, best described as something like 21 Grams meets Donnie Brasco – with a Die Hard finale thrown in for good measure. The result is not quite a great film – but thanks to strong central characters and quality actors playing them, we do get an interesting and fairly good B-movie experience.
Similar to (but not equal to) Martin Scorsese, Oplev is a director who is able infuse the gangster movie sub-genre with some high-art cinematic flare. There are many visually striking moments and sequences throughout the film – as well as a level of mise-en-scene and iconography that is almost poetic in its execution (see: Victor and Beatrice’s first “meeting”). These moments – primarily found in and around the romantic sub-plot – are a stark contrast to the more visceral action bits, which are plotted out with a clever mathematical precision.
The same ‘left brain, right brain’ (oscillation?) (dichotomy?) can be seen in the script by J.H. Wyman. In many ways Dead Man Down carries the same stamp of genre-blended oddity that can be seen in Wyman’s most notable feature-film script, The Mexican. Like that film, however, Dead Man Down also has moments where it feels like momentum and intrigue are suddenly being sidelined in favor of stage play-style character dialogues and development. Luckily for Dead Man Down, the actors playing the central roles are skilled enough to make these (at times oddly theatrical) characters worthy of watching.
Farrell does straight-faced intensity well enough, and he makes Victor a guy who is complex and intriguing enough (in few words) that following him along his dark odyssey is easy to do. Brief scenes detailing Victor’s old life are testaments to how rounded and complete the character really is – so seeing him struggle with questions of morality, duty and compassion feel organic and relevant, unlike so many other cliched takes on the same material.
Rapace is the major standout as Beatrice – a former beautician whose life was shattered by a car accident. There’s considerable complexity to the character; in fact, the first half-hour getting to know her is a like taking a roller-coaster ride of perception, there are some many twists and turns. When the story has finally settled in, however, Rapace commands attention and pulls off Beatrice’s arc both beautifully and completely… before she unfortunately gets lost in the shuffle of a somewhat silly third act (but more on that later).
Terrence Howard and Dominic Cooper (Captain America) are their usual scene-stealing selves; Howard chews scenery with a braggadocio swagger as Alphonse, while Cooper seems to be headlining a movie all in his head playing “Darcy,” a noble lackey and Victor’s best “friend” in the gang – who also happens to be the one guy pushing closer and closer to finding out Victor’s secret. French actress Isabelle Huppert makes off with the few scenes she’s in, playing Beatrice’s loving mother, and a few other familiar faces like F. Murray Abraham and Armand Assante cameo as various members of the underworld.
While two-thirds of the film are a slow-burn character piece / cat-and-mouse thriller, the final act blows into a full-on, Die Hard-style action fest. The sudden shift is very awkward; it stretches the limit on suspension of disbelief, and compromises a number of character and plot-points carefully developed up to that point – but the big final set piece is nonetheless entertaining on a pure action/spectacle level. The ending of the film is, too, a somewhat reductive and cliched resolution to many of the more interesting themes and character arcs explored along the way, but delivers enough of a payoff that the average movie fan will probably be satisfied.
In the end, Dead Man Down is two-thirds of a film for the arthouse/indie crowd with a third leftover for the mindless action-lover. As a result, this strange beast falls somewhere in the middle of things in terms of quality – but for fans of the cast members or those who love revenge thrillers that aren’t afraid to explore the more complicated themes of vengeance, there’s something here to see.
Dead Man Down is now in theaters. It is 110 minutes long and is Rated R for violence, language throughout and a scene of sexuality.