Dead Man Down opens with the sort of sordidly-delivered monologue that immediately calls to mind mob films of days past: from the languid David Mamet quotables of The Untouchables to the ‘I believe in America’ monologue that opened Coppola’s Godfather saga, and more recently, evoking Danish Drive auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s opener to his superb Pusher trilogy’s middle installment. Delivered by Dominic Cooper, it’s a sweeping little piece that ties together discussion of family, duty, and responsibility. Dead Man Down is thus immediately set up for failure, by elbowing its way in with films whose depth (in Godfather’s case) or operatic escapism (Untouchables) it simply cannot compete with.
Set in an anonymously dreary city, Dead Man Down has a fairly promising, pulpy premise: Colin Farrell’s Victor is a high-level mob enforcer with a massive secret: he intends to sabotage his organization and murder his boss, as revenge for the death of his family at their hands several years prior. Noomi Rapace’s Beatrice was a model until a drunken driver left her scarred and disfigured. The two strike up a friendship, seeing each other as an opportunity to solve their problems — Beatrice wants Victor to kill the man that ruined her career, and Victor wants Beatrice silent regarding his wrongdoings.
Director Niels Arden Oplev, making his American debut following his Swedish-language Girl with the Dragon Tattoo iteration, has established himself as a filmmaker unafraid to probe into gloomier territory than others. This is admirable. However, Oplev has also demonstrated a dreary visual style to match, coming off less as ‘realistic’ or ‘rugged’ and more..I dunno..ugly. This makes Dead Man Down a fairly grueling experience from the get-go, casting an aura of grime and gruel to Dead Man Down that moves past stylization into utter shit. Within the thematic context of the film, it doesn’t seem to make much sense either; while violence and dread certainly permeate these events, Oplev builds to a genuinely optimistic climax that not only invalidates many of the film’s prior trepidatious messages about revenge, but the entire style under which the film was composed and conceived. The gloomy overcasts and concerned looks lose their meaning, the film’s final message becomes incoherent and the whole exercise is rendered pretty pointless.
The cast is littered with respectable names that make fairly inexplicable appearances — Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham gets a thankless three-minute cameo as a mentor to Victor, Terrence Howard’s villainous intensity is compromised by the biteless dialogue he’s given, and legendary European actress Isabelle Huppert is left to stand around in a kitchen and make food for our protagonists. The leads themselves are fairly blank slates, attempting to emulate the stoic reflection of a European noir protagonist (Ryan Gosling’s title character of Drive seems to have kickstarted this revivalism) but without the emotional complexity or cool to execute it. They ponder. They stare. They shoot. But they don’t leave an impression. Much like the film they’re left with. D+