by Matt Smith
Dead Man Down, a decent but not quite good B-thriller, reunites Swedish director Neils Arden Oplev with Noomi Rapace, the star of their international breakthrough hit The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Unfortunately, the magic of that film, which was fueled by the gripping narrative as much as the dark and gritty visuals and Rapace’s stunning performance in the role of Lisbeth Salander, is missing this time around. The story is extremely sparse and borderline nonsensical, and the bullet ballet it devolves into is ultimately not that exciting, let down by the lack of narrative logic and realistic character motivation. And that’s a shame, because I really love some things about Dead Man Down.
Vic (Colin Ferrell) is an enforcer for Alphonse (Terrence Howard), but has a big secret: he’s actually infiltrating the gang so he can avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter. Beatrice (Rapace), is a beautician whose face was badly scarred in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. They are neighbors who form a bond through looks of sadness shared across their balconies. After some prodding by her mother (Isabelle Huppert), Beatrice decides its time to get back on her feet and asks Vic out, which he agrees to.
They have a nice time with one another, but Beatrice has other designs. She has footage of Vic killing a man in his apartment, and she uses it to blackmail him into agreeing to kill the drunk driver who ruined her face and stopped her life in its tracks. “If you’re not gonna kill me, you don’t have a choice,” she tells him before jumping out of his truck in the middle of traffic. Given no way out, Vic agrees to her demand, and continues along his path of vengeance.
All of this set-up is handled fairly well, balancing out the pulpiness with the believability of the film’s characters. But the plot soon becomes to convoluted and twisty to keep up its charade of logic, and the whole film threatens to come crashing down around a few pillars that elevate it just slightly North of outright bad filmmaking. Truthfully, however, it is the film’s mediocrity that is most disappointing. More than a joyful reunion of director and star, it is more like a depressing imitation of countless other thrillers with very little flair outside of the attraction of what once was. Sort of like how audiences keep showing up to Spike Lee joints hoping for a glimmer of Do the Right Thing and ending up with nothing better than She Hate Me every single time.
The film’s biggest flaw may be the best thing about it: Noomi Rapace’s Beatrice. By far the most interesting character, and a much bigger screen presence than her co-star Colin Ferrell’s Vic, Beatrice is the person I wanted to know more about. We get glimpses of what a magnificent film this could have been: Huppert as her mother is an oddity that deserves much more exploration, and her relationship with Beatrice needs some real dissection. If the film had chosen Beatrice’s story as its main narrative thread, it may have risen above the sub-standard revenge plot. Alas, we get Vic, a slightly identifiable character whose blossoming romance with Beatrice is also more interesting than the film’s constrictive narrative structure allows.
A big problem with Beatrice, however, is her identity as a woman visibly scarred and seeking to rectify that issue through violence. Even though a sub-plot involves her emergence and integration back into every day life, including returning to her job as a beautician and daily taunts from kids in the neighborhood (who only seem to linger outside her building so that they may call her “monster”) which culminate one day in physical violence on her body as they throw rocks at her, this is hard to buy. First, even with the scars on her face, Rapace remains a remarkably attractive actress. Second, even if we buy that she is considered ugly, her treatment by the neighborhood kids is ridiculously unrealistic. The scars on her face are not enough to consider her a monstrosity of any sort, other than the equally unrealistic logic that she would be emotionally scarred by her physical appearance and the trauma of her car crash to want the responsible party dead. Aside from some smoking and fidgety shaking, this is unconvincing.
Vic, meanwhile, is hellbent on vengeance. So hellbent that he apparently misses what’s happening in front of his eyes. Beatrice actually does like him after all. But before long he’s decided she’s too good for him, he hates Alphonse too much, and that it’d really just be better to leave her alone and take out his targets. Before you can call “bullshit,” Beatrice is taken hostage by someone who finds out what Vic has been up to and Vic charges in head-first in a hail of gunfire to save her. Predictable, shoddy and absolutely derivative of half a dozen or so similar films about broken criminals who find the redemptive power of love but ignore it until they absolutely have to kill everyone standing.
Oplev provides sure direction, and the film has a gritty look and feel reminiscent of Tattoo, some of it is even quite gorgeous. When Rapace puts on a sun dress for a date with Vic, I got a real sense that some light was finally starting to shine into the unrelentingly dark and dismal lives we witness our two protagonists live. And the cast is spot on, too. I think Ferrell does a great job as Vic, but he’s left holding the bag and given too little to work with. Ditto Terrence Howard.
All in all, it’s worth a rainy night Redbox rental, but probably not much else. If you enjoy this sort of thing (as I do), you’ll likely discover some moments that catch your attention and hold it. If those moments weren’t so few and fleeting, Dead Man Down would come with a hearty recommendation. See it for a great turn by Rapace, or because you want to see it. But if you’re on the fence at all, the only thing I can recommend is to proceed with caution and use your own taste to guide you.
3 out of 5 stars.