It would be easy to call Dead Man Down a standard action movie. After all, it has all the trappings of a tired Hollywood genre effort: a depressed hitman (Colin Farrell) looking to get out of the game; a crime boss (Terrence Howard) with a secret to hide; a mafia kingpin (Armand Assante) who can’t rely on his crew and feels someone is undermining his efforts; a best pal (Dominic Cooper) who our antihero can no longer rely on; and a mysterious woman (Noomi Rapace) who discovers our lead’s illegal occupation and wants some payback of her own.
Put these elements in the hands of someone like Brett Ratner or another Hollywood journeyman and you’ve got the makings of a mundane, lifeless drama. But thanks to the foreign filmmaker perspective of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Niels Arden Oplev (this is his first film since said international smash), what should be tired and tenuous has a weird, obtuse life all its own. Sure, there are moments when the movie overdoses on the melancholy and the script by Fringe’s J.H. Wyman offers one too many convenient contrivance, but the end result is still a stylish, engaging noir that knows there’s nothing really new to say within said cinematic style, but still gives it a bleak, black-hearted try.
Farrell is Victor, working for Howard’s Alphonse. Blaming him for the death of his daughter, he is systematically undermining his boss’s grip on the drug trade in order to set him up for a fatal fall with Assante’s Don. Cooper’s Darcy is determined to stay loyal, even when he starts to suspect his friend’s involvement in the death of several of the syndicate’s subordinates. When Rapace’s Beatrice “outs” Victor, blackmailing him into getting back at the man who disfigured her, we have a set up for a deadly date with destiny. Then Oplev pulls the rug out from under us, making sure we never forget that problems solved by violence almost always foster the same, if not more.
For some, this will play like a pale Drive wannabe. For others, the idea of Scandinavian filmmakers fixated on the seedy B-movies of the ’50s and ’60s makes about as much sense as modern French directors’ obsessions with gore. But Oplev is not just married to the mannerisms of noir. He wants to exploit them for his own unique ends. This makes the acting all the more important, and luckily, the cast of Dead Man Down delivers. Farrell may be nothing more than a fake matinee mannequin, but he looks genuinely distraught here. He is matched well by Rapace, who does the damaged damsel in distress so well that you wonder how she stayed in cinematic obscurity for so long. Everyone else is equally effective.
Elsewhere, Dead Man Down twists convention. From odd locations to its slow burn simmer, the pieces are in place for a revisionist look at losers and the sordid underbelly of life of crime. There is a definite European approach to everything, from Beatrice’s background (she’s French, and lives with her partially deaf, French-speaking mother, played by Isabelle Huppert) to Victor’s Eastern bloc heritage. This is the U.S. viewed through the eyes of an outsider, and for much of the film it’s a tantalizing, if telling POV. It’s more American nightmare than any manner of dream.
In the end, this is really nothing more than Oplev’s opening salvo, a resume-building placeholder angling to bring him out of the international spotlight and into the glare of life making mainstream Hollywood movies… and for the most part, he acquits himself admirably. It’s by no means a great film, but it does offer a different perspective on the overdone genre dynamics involved.