Noomi Rapace and Colin Farrell (foreground) in “Dead Man Down.” Photo by John Baer
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Film review: ‘Dead Man Down’ shows signs of a pulse

Niels Arden Oplev’s English-language debut, “Dead Man Down,” sports an engrossing grim outlook on the pursuit of vengeance and an impressive array of cast performances, but the one-sided impact of said revenge and slapdash Hollywood climax leaves much to be desired. 

An up-and-coming underworld thug named Victor (Colin Farrell) has infiltrated Alphonse Hoyt’s (Terrence Howard) criminal enterprise, intending to make Alphonse pay for killing his wife and child.

Victor’s preparations to exact vengeance are interrupted by Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a mysterious woman who resides in the apartment across from his own. She discovers Victor’s lifestyle (and secrets), and she uses this information to blackmail him into helping her carry out her own “eye-for-an-eye” campaign. Each person is determined to even the score, armed with a violent plan that could affect their lives permanently.

Anybody who enjoys watching film noir will find plenty to like here. The stark light/dark visual contrasts and the dramatic use of shadows help to establish the film’s pessimistic tone. Add that to the moral ambiguity, labyrinthine urban setting, and socially alienated characters, and you’ve pretty much got a treasure trove of noir elements just waiting to be discovered.

The story doesn’t get down to business right away; this is a slow burner that works its magic step by step. I admit I was not disappointed with the plot undergoing better development as time went by, allowing the audience to see the dimensions of each character. If you’re the kind of moviegoer who doesn’t have the patience to play the waiting game, however, don’t bother standing in line at the box office.

I found myself becoming fascinated by Victor’s desire to avenge his dead wife and child, and the film provides us plenty of opportunities to illustrate his story arc. We experience his agony, understand his anger, and observe his actions against those who destroyed his life. In contrast, Beatrice’s quest for revenge receives only half of the attention, thereby giving the character not as much plot for her to delve into. There was potential in her storyline to be explored, but sadly we never get to see it develop fully.

While the chemistry between the two leads is solid and deep, I think the inclusion of a romance possessed too much of a “must-have” agenda. The film could’ve handled itself just fine without the romantic element; if anything, that subplot came off as mandatory instead of organic.

Those who are looking for a fast-paced action thriller will be surprised to see that this film is a far cry from what the advertisements claim it to be. Nevertheless, the few action sequences are orchestrated with expert marksmanship, never shying away from driving the theme of retribution home with every bullet fired.

One action sequence that feels more incongruous than seamless is the final shootout in Alphonse’s mansion. It seems as if director Oplev either ran out of time to create a more effective climax or had the time to do so but ran out of artistic steam. Whatever the circumstances, the Hollywood-esque ending feels like a hasty conclusion to a European cinema-influenced story. It’s as if the project took the easy way out and didn’t have the guts to confess having made a mistake.

Despite these ups and downs, the director’s choice of cast is his most valuable component. Colin Farrell brings a tragic ruthless streak to Victor, and Noomi Rapace offers a scarred, damaged turn as Beatrice. Terrence Howard is more than adequate in his role of the gangster Alphonse. Dominic Cooper’s ambitious Darcy steps into comfortable shoes that will remind viewers of Jeremy Renner from “The Town” three years ago.

There’s no doubt in my mind that “Dead Man Down” seeks to accomplish what any revenge thriller would want to accomplish, but it only manages to reach that objective halfway.

If only both revenge plotlines received equal treatment and the ending wasn’t so haphazard, then maybe it might’ve proven its point. Oh well, better luck next time Oplev.

MPAA rating: R for violence, language throughout and a scene of sexuality.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes

Playing: General release


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