Dead Man Down marks the first in a slurry of revenge thrillers about to grace our screens. Films such as The Prisoners and Into The Furnace promise dark tales of people avenging loved ones. Much of this new found hunger for dark thrillers can be traced back to the Nordic grit that came in the form of TV shows like The Killing, the books of Jo Nesbo and of course the original Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It is with some blood dripping justice then that Dead Man Down comes courtesy of that film’s director Niels Arden Oplev and stars the original Lisbeth Salander – Noomi Rapace. But does Oplev have the stomach to deliver his hard-hitting brand of justice to a mainstream audience or has he been diluted by America?
Victor (Colin Farrell) works for gangster Alphonse (Terrence Howard) who is not best pleased at the threatening letters he’s been getting recently. As he goes about unceremoniously dispatching any known enemies, Victor watches, all the while plotting his revenge. Because it is Victor who has been manipulating Alphonse’s downfall as recompense for him killing his wife and daughter two years earlier. But Victor has slipped-up by dispatching a bad guy in full view of his neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace). Beatrice is in the mood for a bit of revenge herself having been disfigured in a car accident caused by a drunk driver who served all of three weeks in prison for his crime. So Victor and Beatrice strike a deal; in exchange for her silence he will kill the man who hurt her while he goes about his own dark deeds with a little help from his new friend.
Dead Man Down has ideas of being a dirty, ‘70s type revenge thriller. The type of film you’d expect a Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin to spend their time swaggering around, offing bad guys with little more than a hardened stare and wry smile. On some levels it achieves this. A slow-burn exercise in suspense building, Dead Man Down certainly looks the part of a brooding revenge thriller. The problem is too much brooding when what we really want is a bit of bloodthirsty revenge akin to Oplev and Rapace’s Millennium Trilogy.
The script, by The Mexican writer and Fringe veteran J. H. Wyman, is more interested in drawing out its melancholic characters rather than focusing on the plot at hand. What’s more, when the plot does kick in you feel parts are missing. We hear about how Victor’s family were killed but don’t witness it. The age old adage of “show don’t tell” leaves you wondering why we never get to see, if only in a grainy, black and white flashback, how Victor became this empty shell of a man. Instead, like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, Victor endlessly watches home videos of his family in the hope this will provoke enough emotional investment from us to understand his motivation.
The film plays out too much like I Know What You Did Last Summer from the point of view of the killer rather than the victim. That being an interesting prospect on paper, Dead Man Down spends too much time dwelling on characters who, while well acted, are never particularly engaging. All too often it telegraphs what it wants to say without subtext, one moment in particular has Howard muttering; “It would be something though if you saved my life only to be the one who kills me”. It’s too on the nose seeing as we’ve watched Victor maneuver himself into exactly that position.
A redeeming quality in all the darkness is the burgeoning, forbidden, romance between Victor and Beatrice. Both of them scarred – him emotionally, her both physically and mentally – they spend much of the film trying to put distance between each other but all along those stolen looks remain the focus of Oplev’s lens. Farrell broods well while Rapace brings a fragile resolve to Beatrice making it apparent why she is willing to stand-up to the clearly violent Victor.
But Dead Man Down’s fatal flaw is its indecision as to what it wants to be. The revenge plots are one thing, the dark romance another but by the climax you wonder if you’ve accidentally changed channel. The end descends into a one-man army taking on a bevy of villains which ideally needed Liam Neeson muttering threats down his mobile phone. Yes it looks fantastic, all rain soaked and slow-mo induced but it’s hardly in keeping with the style and tone of the rest of the film.
Try as it might to be noirish and grim, Dead Man Down does little to break out from the mundane and pedestrian.