A film review by Craig J. Koban March 19, 2013


2013, R, 112 mins.

Colin Farrell: Victor / Noomi Rapace: Beatrice /  Dominic Cooper: / Terrence Howard: Alphonse /  Isabelle Huppert:

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev / Written by J.H. Wyman

Even though it mournfully devolves into a rather perfunctory and run-of-the-mill shoot ‘em up conclusion, DEAD MAN DOWN establishes itself from the get-go as a tense, sophisticated, haunting, and contemplative character driven neo-revenge thriller.  So many other similar Hollywoodized genre efforts place more emphasis on mindless blood-spattered mayhem and salacious violence – which, to be fair, DEAD MAN DOWN does contain – but this vengeance driven film is more compellingly about its two flawed and semi-doomed characters, both of whom are emotionally broken (one physically so) and have nothing in their black hearts but a craving for retribution.  Through their own mutually shared grief, they manage to come together.  

The script - from J.H. Wyman, who wrote the highly underrated THE MEXICAN and has also worked as a writer/director on TV’s FRINGE – shows an uncommon level of patience with establishing all of the particulars.  Twitchy filmgoers may fidget in their seats trying to piece together the plot particulars at first, but the relative obscurity of the characters and their relationships to one another – albeit jarring at first – gives the film a propulsive narrative momentum to the point where we want to discover all its connective tissue.  DEAD MAN DOWN has an intricate complexity as a result as it keeps you off-balance, yet alert.  As the chief protagonists slowly and surely begin to let their respective guards down to one another, the secrets of their lives – and the film’s plot – begin to satisfyingly take form. 

Colin Farrell plays Victor, a driven loner that is a member of a gang headed up Alphonse (Terrance Howard), but we eventually learn that Victor’s loyalties to his boss are not really pure at all.  Due to a personal tragedy that cost him the lives of his wife and child, Victor has engaged in a methodically laid out plan to infiltrate Alphonse’s inner circle and, when the timing is right, kill him and his entire crew.  Everything seems to be going as planned, that is until he catches the eye of his apartment high-rise neighbor named Beatrice (the great Swedish actress Noomi Rapace), who manages to ask the troubled man on a date.  Well, the date ends her blackmailing him: She has mobile-phone recorded Victor killing one of Alphonse’s men, and she vows to turn it into the police…that is unless Victor will conspire with her to murder the man that – while driving drunk – hit her and caused her to be badly scared on one side of her face.  The culprit got off on a very minimal charge, which has left Beatrice – like Victor – seriously yearning for payback.  He begrudgingly agrees to help her, but both of their plans hit a series of unavoidable roadblocks that threatens both of their lives. 



I like how this film does not rush any potential love story between Victor and Beatrice, because they both throughout the film seem far too burdened with their own heartache to even seriously become an item.  These are two broken people that have had their lives shattered by tragedy, and the level of intimacy that that manage to forge in the film is not so much erotically driven as it is tentative and cautious.  They both seem to hunger for human contact and someone to connect with, even though they emotionally are ill equipped and unprepared for such complications.  More than anything, DEAD MAN DOWN is really about the misfortune of shared misery than it is about love.  Beatrice and Victor do connect, but their linkage comes as a result of them trying to exorcise personal demons.  After that is dealt with, then they begin an actual courtship of love. 

Rapace has impressed me with just about every performance she has ever given.  She, if you don’t recall, was the original Lisbeth Salander in the Scandi GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO trilogy (still better than the American remake, I might add), and what continues to amaze me is how she manages to instill a low key sultriness, animalistic drive, and vulnerability in all of her roles, and her work here in DEAD MAN DOWN is no exception.  Her chemistry with Farrell is exemplary, as quiet scenes between them are little masterpieces of performance nuance: they both manage to convey so much without truly verbalizing anything.  Farrell in particular – one of our most thanklessly decent and empowered actors - has a manner of playing forcefully introverted men driven to outward fits of violence and comeuppance without it seeming ludicrously forced. 

DEAD MAN DOWN is a fine looking noir, thanks largely to its capable director, Niels Arden Oplev, who previously worked with Rapace on THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and here makes his American directorial debut.  Fortunately, he has not left his European flavored esoteric fingerprints off of DEAD MAN DOWN, as he carefully calibrates a dark and somber visual texture to the film that echoes the main character’s drives.  Beyond giving the film a visually arresting edge, Oplev is a real master of generating suspense in ways that doesn’t involve predictable and tedious action beats by utilizing the character’s despair and growing anxieties.  Oplev understands that the film is at its most confident and immersive when honing in on Farrell’s and Rapace’s fragile interplay.  

Oplev does make a few missteps along the way, as is the case with building a film towards so much promise of payoff, only then to have it devolve into a denouement that relies rather heavily on story contrivances, coincidences, and beyond perfect timing for all of the characters involved.  At the very least, Oplev knows how to deliver rip-roaring action and stunts without relying on queasy cam hysterics or rapid fire editing, but the high octane and blood spattered finale somewhat betrays the physiological depth that the story ahead of it maintained.  Then there are issues with logic in Wyman’s screenplay, like, for instance, how Farrell manages to escape authorities after committing multiple – and publicly displayed – murders and other criminal acts (police don’t seem to exist in this film), not to mention that Victor seems to become an indestructible superman that can do no wrong: he seems like he has been time-warped from a disposable 1980’s action film.  There are a few other narrative conundrums, like one involving Alphonse’s plan to discover Victor’s real motives that left me scratching my head and asking far too many questions.  

Yet, DEAD MAN DOWN makes up for these flaws by being a superiorly helmed and enthralling revenge thriller that mostly absconds away from stale American conventions and clichés.  The direction is ominous and moody, the performances crackle with intensity, and the tightly calibrated and layered script pays a lot of respect to its intricately rendered characters.  In the end, DEAD MAN DOWN is more intimately a tragedy about two lost and dejected people coming together and motivating themselves to seek a morose level of personal justice.  So very few recent thrillers maintain as much character depth and interest as this one does. 

  H O M E