Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
Written by J.H. Wyman
It’s hard to tell exactly when Dead Man Down topples over totally into an overwhelming sense of self-seriousness, to pinpoint which of Colin Farrell’s many soulful looks into the grim abyss of New York City is the one that pushes this movie into overheated melodrama. Perhaps it’s odd to criticize a film about how revenge eats away at the soul for being too dark and dour, but Dead Man Down is barely able to maintain a sense of vitality throughout because of its wallowing nature. In spite of some random bits of stylistic flair and a few decent performers, this movie is too sluggish to make an impact.
Farrell plays Victor, a low-level criminal in an enterprise headed by Alphonse (Terrence Howard). After one of Alphonse’s close associates gets killed by a mystery man who leaves behind strange, elliptical clues, he wants to hunt down the murderer no matter what. Meanwhile, Victor encounters a beautiful neighbor (Noomi Rapace) who, it turns out, knows Victor’s wrongdoings and will report him to the cops if he doesn’t perform a similarly violent act on the drunk driver whose accident caused her recently disfigured face. The tension in J.H. Wyman’s script is meant to build slowly, calmly, and to his credit, there’s less violence in this movie than the opening sequence may indicate. Unfortunately, most of what we get in place of shootouts is would-be pensive moments, long pauses, and not much else.
Dead Man Down has noble goals, as some kind of dark character study pretending to be a macho actioner, but director Niels Arden Oplev (in his first directing effort since the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) presumes that overloading the film with a moody atmosphere and bleak shots of the New York skyline will make up for the rote character motivations. It’s hard not to focus on the many movies Dead Man Down is indebted to, all the way from Casablanca (Victor’s real name is Laszlo) to Minority Report (here, a character mourns his dead family by projecting old home movies on his wall). As neo-noir, Dead Man Down is unable to step out of the shadows of its influences. Every so often, the film comes alive courtesy of random flourishes from Paul Cameron’s cinematography, such as a shot where the camera spins as Victor rushes up an endless flight of stairs, but it’s mostly just style for the sake of being stylish.
Farrell is, once again, firmly out of his best acting mode, the Character Actor. Here, he turns on his glower as much as possible as the Tortured Leading Man, and while he’s more successful than in last year’s painful Total Recall remake, his best work remains that which is most challenging by not conforming to typical screenwriting standards. Rapace, reuniting with the director whose last film propelled her to worldwide fame, is mostly fine as Beatrice, a physically and mentally wounded butterfly of a woman—though her facial scars are so minor that it barely makes any sense that people would gawk and stare at her. However, in the scene where Beatrice reveals she knows about Victor’s dirty deeds, Rapace turns the melodrama to 11 in an unintentionally laughable and histrionic mini-performance. Howard, as the main heavy, frankly doesn’t make much of an impact. Strangely, Wyman’s focus on Victor and Beatrice, and how vengeance weighs heavy on them, makes those they wish harm on seem so unimportant. Alphonse is a very bad man, not only for his criminal dealings, but for his past transgressions. And yet we barely know him, all the way to the outrageously violent climax.
Dead Man Down has a couple of moments that stand out, either for having a surprising level of poignance or for being bugnuts crazy—when we find that Victor is holding someone prisoner in the hold of an apparently abandoned cruise liner, for example. But those are few and far between, sadly, in this excessively slow, turgid crime drama. Farrell, Rapace, and Howard have all been better and, to varying degrees, they show through their performances that they’re well aware of this fact. Dead Man Down isn’t so much terrible or a slog to sit through as it is forgettable, a shame considering the impressive cast and crew.
— Josh Spiegel