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Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: Dead Man Down (2013)

* *

Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Starring: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Terrence Howard, Dominic Cooper

Dead Man Down begins with an intriguing premise and then proceeds to bury it under layers and layers of plot until you can no longer see it. It has two capable actors in its central roles, who sometimes spark separately and apart, but whose performances are ultimately suffocated by the burdens of the narrative. There's a good movie in here somewhere, somewhere deep, deep down where there is one good plot, instead of several lesser ones struggling to come together. As it is, Dead Man Down is a generic, somewhat forgettable thriller.

It's a boy meets girl story. In this case, the boy, Victor (Colin Farrell) lives in an apartment which looks directly into that of Beatrice (Noomi Rapace). They notice each other, they even exchange a shy wave, but they've never spoken. Beatrice is self-conscious of the scars on her face that are the result of a car accident, and Victor is haunted by his past, wounded into isolation. It isn't until Beatrice's mother (Isabelle Huppert) takes matters into her own hands by sending Victor a note that is purportedly from Beatrice that the two are finally brought together and decide to go on a date. At the end of the date, the true intentions of both are revealed: Victor, a soldier for crime boss Alphonse (Terrence Howard), has gone in order to ascertain whether Beatrice witnessed a murder he committed in his home; Beatrice has gone to confirm that she did and to blackmail Victor into killing the man who drove drunk and caused the accident which has ruined her life. Beatrice has the murder on video and if Victor agrees to kill the drunk driver, he can have it. It's the sort of Strangers on a Train type arrangement from which a film could mine a great deal of tension and drama.

Dead Man Down goes another way. Victor is not just mobster with a tendency to gaze soulfully into the distance. He is also a "man with a past" and a "man with a plan." The past involves a dead wife and daughter. The plan involves double crossing Alphonse, the man responsible for the deaths of the wife and daughter, and picking off the members of his organization one by one. It also involves an elaborate scheme to unsettle Alphonse, the kidnapping of the brother of an Albanian gangster, and a plan to manipulate Alphonse's crew and the Albanians into a war. Oh, and Victor's best friend, Darcy (Dominic Cooper), is playing amateur detective in an effort to rise within the ranks of Alphonse's gang, and has been slowly unraveling Victor's plans, forcing him to backtrack and reset the plot, and leading to the film's climax, which might be exciting if it weren't exactly like the climax of every action movie ever.

Dead Man Down starts on strong footing as it establishes Victor and Beatrice and their tentative, guarded attraction to each other. One of the film's best scenes is their dinner date as the intensely self-conscious Beatrice must put aside the humiliation she feels about her appearance (which, it must be said, is only "Hollywood ugly" which is not ugly at all and certainly not so repugnant that the neighborhood children should be chasing her through the street and calling her "Monster") in order to draw him in and get him to surrender his defenses to the point where she can drop the bomb on him. Although Rapace ultimately has little more to do than play "the girl" as the plot becomes increasingly convoluted, her presence in many scenes gives the otherwise sleepy film a bit of a kick. The same can be said about Cooper, who plays his character like an excited puppy who desperately wants a pat on the head every time his investigation leads him to a new clue regarding the identity of the man who has been tormenting Alphonse.

Although director Niels Arden Oplev (director of the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) brings some nice stylistic touches to the film, the story ultimately gets away from him, growing bigger and less focused with every passing scene. There are too many threads and subplots with not nearly enough tension generated between them to make Dead Man Down effective as either a thriller or a mood piece. While there are obviously elements of the film which I admire and think work well, there's just way too much about the film that doesn't work at all to make it really worth watching.

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