Dead Man Down is a thriller slash action flick having a romance with an art-house film. I keep reading other reviewers who seem to be turning up their noses as if that’s a bad thing, but in truth, the idea that those elements are incompatible is a very American thing. Like Park Chan-wook (Stoker), another acclaimed international director who also just made his English language debut, director Niels Arden Oplev, is not American. Unlike Park, Oplev isn’t Korean either. He’s European. The Europeans are much more comfortable with the blurring of genre lines. (Case in point, Italian director Gabriele Muccino’s Playing for Keeps which had elements of romantic comedy, farce and melodrama. You either had a taste for the olio or you didn’t. Most American journalists clearly didn’t.)
I started following the progress of Dead Man Down in the spring of 2012 when filming began in Philadelphia (standing in for New York). Every pic from the set gave the impression that Oplev and company, which includes stars Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Terrence Howard, Dominic Cooper and Isabelle Hupert, were crafting as cool a thriller as you’d expect from the director of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Check out the red-band trailer:
Film District’s official synopsis:
Following the cinematic phenomenon “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” acclaimed filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev and brooding beauty Noomi Rapace reunite for another thrilling tale of vengeance. Colin Farrell joins the prestigious team as brave enforcer Victor, right hand man to an underground crime lord in New York City. He seeks to avenge the death of his wife and daughter caused by his boss. When his employer is threatened by a mysterious killer, Victor also becomes detective. Victor is seduced and blackmailed by Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a victim turned avenger whose intense chemistry leads them spiraling into payback delivered in violent catharsis. From producer Neal Moritz (The Fast and the Furious franchise, I Am Legend) and Joel Wyman (Fringe, Keen Eddie) comes a triumphant action thriller, a powerful portrait of the relationship between two people caught in the crosshairs of revenge.
Film District picked up US distribution rights in Cannes last May. What surprised me when I saw the final result, however, was the WWE Studios logo. My first thought was “does that really have something to do with wrestling?” The answer is yes. WWE means World Wrestling Entertainment and they’ve been producing films since 2002. I just never noticed. Given the sort of entertainment that WWE is famous for, one would expect the name to be attached to a macho, action-heavy flick. What is surprising to me is that the WWE sensibility somehow melds cohesively with the human interest drama Oplev was aiming for, giving us a satisfying and well-rounded revenge thriller.
And revenge is the common goal of the couple at the center of the film. Victor (Farrell) is out to avenge the senseless deaths of his wife and daughter, while Beatrice (Rapace) wants the drunk driver, who caused the accident which left her face permanently disfigured, to pay. Victor has managed to not only worm his way into the mob responsible for his wife and child’s deaths, but has gotten close to the man in charge, Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard). When the film opens, Hoyt has been receiving death threats, along with clues as to the sender’s identity, for months.
Beatrice and Victor are neighbors, both living on opposite sides of a New York City high-rise. We meet Beatrice as she stands on her balcony and waves at Victor on his. We don’t immediately see her scars and neither does he. What we see is the question running through his mind that is later voiced by Beatrice, “Who is she and how much does she know about me?”
If you’ve seen a tv spot or a clip for this movie then you know that what initially draws these two together is the answer to that question. She’s seen a lot and she wants to use it to her advantage. She wants Victor to kill the drunk driver for her.
While we may understand Victor’s reasoning for his actions and his thirst for revenge, and we may understand Beatrice’s as well, we know that the more he comes to care for her, the more he will try to save her from herself. At one point he asks her, “Do you know what it’s like to kill a man?” Of course she doesn’t, and he doesn’t want her to ever know.
The relationship between Beatrice and Victor is the heart of the story – in a movie full of surprises, this is something that is unexpectedly moving and complex. They are both deeply damaged characters who each see the other as a way of repairing what’s broken, but they go about things in the most dangerous and turbulent ways possible.
Colin Farrell, another enormously talented actor whose career has always seemed to be overshadowed by his chaotic personal life, seems to have finally gotten his shit together. His performance here is on a par with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, two of my favorite films of the last few years. It’s subtle. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. We learn most of what he’s thinking and feeling by watching his face. We see how damaged and tormented he is by looking at his eyes.
If Victor’s pain is internal, Beatrice carries hers on the outside. It’s a mistake to think that because she does not attempt to hide her scars that she is accepting of them, that they have not left her psyche as mutilated as her face. She dresses provocatively, tying her shirts in knots to bare her midriff, wearing enormously high heels, in an effort to call attention to her body and away from her face, despite the fact that she “appears” to accept the scars, by tucking her hair behind her ears, by paying careful attention to her makeup, etc. But it’s with a “fake it til you make it” attitude, not genuine acceptance.
There’s a realization that happens between Victor and Beatrice that no matter what they want, and how many people they kill, there will still be a part of them both that is scarred. While Victor’s scars might be invisible, it’s the acceptance of those scars that will truly bring them peace.
Terrence Howard is an appropriately slimy villain and Dominic Cooper is very good at what amounts to be a sort of mild comic relief. The action sequences are thrilling and skillfully crafted. The final set piece begins with an act so outrageous and unexpected that the audience I saw it with gave out a collective, “Whoa!” But it is the chemistry between Rapace and Farrell that drives the movie. I think that it’s another that may suffer poor box office because it doesn’t fit into a neat little box. If it were not an American made film, if it were a foreign film directed by Oplev or even someone like Daniel Espinosa, I think the blend of romance, revenge and action might find an art house niche. But trying to sell it as straight action is a mistake.
Having said that, before the screening I saw started, I was worried that I was in for a lot of talking back to the screen, as it had been sponsored in part by an “urban” radio station, but the audience was rapt and there was even a smattering of applause at the end. Go figure.