Everybody’s probably going to hate Dead Man Down, but there’s too much good stuff here to dismiss it entirely. More a dark fairy tale about vengeance than the action-packed crime thriller it purports to be, the film is at times exhilarating, bold, and beautiful — when it’s not busy being ludicrous, fragmented, and just plain stupid. Amid today’s wasteland of play-it-safe blockbusters, you may find yourself admiring it for the risks it takes — and then wince when it falls on its face.
The idea here is that quiet mob henchman Victor (Colin Farrell) is secretly trying to bring down his boss Alphonse’s (Terrence Howard) empire from within. Alphonse is responsible, along with a gang of Albanians, for murdering Victor’s wife and daughter several years ago. (They think they also killed Victor. They don’t realize that he survived. They also apparently never managed to see any pictures of him along the way, since he’s now a trusted part of their organization.) When he’s not doing Alphonse’s dirty work, Victor, a former engineer, spends all of his time focusing intensely on his elaborately planned-out (and breathtakingly, unnecessarily, hilariously complex) revenge strategy. Somehow he manages to connect one evening with Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a beautiful young woman living in an apartment across the street with her mother (Isabelle Huppert!). Beatrice has an elaborate scar running along one side of her face, the result of a terrible car accident. Playfully shaking hands in the air from across their balconies, Victor and Beatrice go out on a date, but their awkward exchanges quickly give way to mythic insanity: It turns out she has seen him kill a man. Now she wants him to do the same for her and kill the jerk responsible for her accident. Boiling over with hurt and righteous anger, the girl next door has transformed into a Fury of the streets.
Farrell and Rapace have little chemistry as romantic leads, but their scenes together are still the best thing about the film. His rage is methodical, precise, and he keeps everything close to his chest. Her rage is aflame and uncontainable, and she can’t keep herself from blurting it all out. The film, to its credit, plays nicely with their mismatched personalities: He tries to make her reconsider, while she reconnects him with the emotional life he’s been suppressing as he goes about his grim duties, his identity submerged. Both émigrés (he’s Hungarian, she’s French), these characters are transports from another world, and their discomfort inside their own skins adds an extra level of tension to their relationship and budding romance.
The director here is Niels Arden Oplev, who made the fairly forgettable original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo film, and the writer J.H. Wyman, showrunner for Fringe and the writer of the Brad Pitt–Julia Roberts vehicle The Mexican, another goofy two-hander masquerading as a genre pic. Neither of these filmmakers is known for his adherence to realism or plausibility, and Dead Man Down feels at times like a gangland fable along the lines of Luc Besson’s classic Leon (The Professional). It’s the kind of movie that seems like it’s been crafted from our collective consciousness of movies — from the evocative cityscape that lies beyond our two leads’ balconies, to the tough guy dialogue between the villains, to the cavernous, operatic spaces in which Victor carries out his plot. (He’s imprisoned one gangster inside a giant, abandoned, decaying ship. Have I mentioned that the film takes place in New York?)
Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of movie that they might have tried to make in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player or the Mel Gibson episode of The Simpsons. The kind of movie in which Colin Farrell drives a car straight into a mansion full of gangsters and then almost immediately blows away everyone in sight. So you sit there and you watch, as an interestingly offbeat, occasionally even touching drama about the all-consuming power of vengeance becomes a ludicrously inane wannabe-kickass action flick. Unfortunately, the only ass it manages to kick is its own.