"Dead Man Down" Impresses With Depth, Atmosphere

Trashy action thrillers have long been a staple of the American moviegoing diet. The genre is dependably, unflinchingly derivative, its sole well worn, like that of an overworked shoe, holes and all. The action pic has been whittled down to a formula, easily replicated in labs by men in suits checking off boxes, recycling the same narratives, themes, and characters ad nauseam. And its audience is nearly as reliable. So, when something like “Dead Man Down” comes along, it deserves heaps of praise just for being so unique. Not all of it hits its mark, but when the picture starts to gain momentum at the hour mark, its distinctiveness sets in. And it’s almost startling.

“Dead Man Down” sees Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev (director of the original “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) helming a script by J.H. Wyman (writer for TV’s “Fringe”). An uncharacteristically stoic Colin Farrell stars as Victor, a thug-for-hire working for a sleazy crime boss, Alphonse (Terrence Howard). Farrell broods in the background of the first few scenes, speaking only four words in the first fifteen minutes of the film. It’s a smart choice, allowing us to accept the character as a focused but broken man, always keeping an eye on his surroundings – quite a reach from Farrell’s chatty turns in fare like “Phone Booth” and “In Bruges.”

When Alphonse begins receiving threats via mail (think “The Riddler”) and one of his crew members is killed, he begins the hunt for his mysterious adversary. Dominic Cooper offers support as Darcy, a fast-talking friend and co-worker of Victor’s, while Noomi Rapace co-stars as Beatrice, a pretty but disfigured neighbor who often waves at Victor from her balcony.

Beatrice’s facial scars, the result of an accident with a drunk driver, have cost her her job and her well-being. When she accidentally witnesses Victor strangling a man in his apartment, she sees an opportunity for revenge. She decides to get to know her neighbor, ultimately producing a video of the aforementioned scuffle, using it to extort him. If Victor kills the drunk driver, she won’t go to the cops. As convoluted as this might sound, it’s only a jumping-off point for the rest of film. And while the director is guilty of dramatic whiplash early-on, revving up the action via loud music and quick cuts before slamming on the brakes, the best is saved for later.

The film is written and shot unlike most actioners, ripe with uncomfortable silences and thoughtful shot compositions. As the narrative’s twists and turns reveal themselves, the characters grow – particularly Victor and Beatrice – and what began as an exploitative relationship turns into something more. No, the screenplay doesn’t become overly saccharine, but the players’ motivations are entirely believable, even if their circumstances are not.

Some will criticize the story as a wholesale lift of “The Punisher,” minus the costume. And it is. I had no trouble imagining Tom Jane in one of the lead roles. But beyond some of the clichéd plot machinations, the picture never holds the viewer’s hand. It treats the audience like adults and allows the actors to play their roles multi-dimensionally – a rarity in this kind of picture. Portions of the film are downright elegant in their staging.

The shootouts are serviceable, but they don’t need to be any stronger when the character work is this strong. Some of the dialogue is less than ideal and some of the story beats don’t make a lick of sense, but as a whole, this is strong work by everyone involved. If you find yourself bored between the first and second acts, hang in there. The second half is far more illuminating, and the conclusions of the two main arcs are undeniably satisfying. And as much of a surprise as the film’s successes are, the involvement of WWE Films is even more enigmatic. It’s hard to say what their involvement was beyond producing the film, but it’s certainly the best project that they’ve had their name on to date. Not much of an accomplishment, I know. But “Dead Man Down” is very worthy of action fans who crave a bit more from the genre.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: March 8, 2013
Studio: FilmDistrict
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Screenwriter: J.H. Wyman
Starring: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard, Isabelle Huppert
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language throughout and a scene of sexuality)