While nothing particularly fresh or even terribly interesting, Dead Man Down is a mostly competent thriller. There. Done. Can we move on now? That’s almost just about all that needs to be said about it. The poster and trailer tell you all you need to know — except that there’s a lot less action than they promise — and being “competent” is generally enough for most thrillers to get by nowadays.
The theme of the day is revenge, with the lead character and his supporting cast all wanting to get that one key word on pretty much everyone else. Victor (Colin Farrell) plays our hero, a bodyguard for a key criminal, Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard). Hungarian at birth, Victor has worked hard to lose his accent, although he keeps to himself anyway. Being in that kind of lifestyle doesn’t exactly bode well for potential relationships. There’s a woman in an apartment across the way, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), who waves to him every now and then. Eventually they have dinner. It’s here where we learn of the first revenge plot.
Beatrice is disfigured after being hit by a drunk driver. He served three weeks in prison and was released. She wants him dead. She saw Victor kill a man in his apartment — you’ll learn exactly who that was much later in the film — and is blackmailing him to perform her revenge for her. She can’t kill the driver, but he can. She doesn’t know what his true profession or even key motivation is, but she’s seen him kill and that’s good enough for her.
Victor, on the other hand, is working on a revenge scheme of his own. It’s not exactly complicated, but I think delving into his exact plan would be entering spoiler territory. Suffice to say that he’s a good guy, there are bad guys, and there’s a tragic back story for each good person in the film. Even Beatrice’s well-meaning mother (Isabelle Huppert) lost her hearing at a young age. This is how we’re building sympathy for these people. Admittedly, it’s effective enough, especially when all you really need to feel is disdain for the people who did awful things to our good characters.
It’s kind of nice to have such an open and honest movie, I think. I mean, there’s no moralizing about the revenge, no hidden agendas about wanting it for anything other than somewhat selfish and personal reasons; it’s just a good, old-fashioned, straight-up revenge story. Once it gets rolling, there are no big twists and no major reveals. We just get to watch the attempts at revenge taking place, and see how these wind up impacting the characters involved in them.
Most of the film is talking, which isn’t what you’ll expect if you saw the trailer, or just saw the opening couple of scenes. It shouldn’t surprise you if you’re aware of the director, Niels Arden Oplev, and his previous work — most famously, the first adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He does try his hand at staging action scenes with Dead Man Down, and when he does it becomes clear why most of the film is talking and atmosphere building: He has no idea how to do action. Or, at least, he doesn’t show that he can in this film.
The action scenes are incoherent messes. You can’t tell who’s doing what to whom, for starters, and there’s also a distinct lack of proper lighting, which further hinders our ability to determine friend from foe. They’re disastrous how poorly they’re shot and put together, which makes a clichéd and “Hollywood” climax seem even more forced; he didn’t seem comfortable doing action scenes so why is our finale a big shootout? Because American audience require that, the studios believe. Are they wrong?
Speaking of studios, you’ll notice that one of the ones that produced this film is from the WWE. Starting with 2012’s The Day, they’ve actually begun transitioning into a non-wrestler-starring film studio — somewhat, anyway. What was their impact in changing the final product? Well, WWE star Wade Barrett plays another one of Alphonse’s bodyguards. That’s about it. It’s not even a big role, and if you didn’t know he was a wrestler going in, you probably wouldn’t even be able to tell.
That isn’t to say he’s any good in the role, because he performs awfully, but that would probably be typical of anyone signed on to play “Bodyguard #X.” As for the stars, Colin Farrell has a single facial expression in the film, Terrence Howard sucks the life out of the room whenever he shows up — which is rare, actually — and Noomi Rapace, teaming up with her former Girl with the Dragon Tattoo director, is playing a French woman for reasons that I don’t fully understand, and does admirably at the job. If one actor doesn’t take a slight lambasting after this film, it’ll be her.
Dead Man Down is a competent thriller with a couple of big action scenes that really drag it down. Is it worth seeing? I’m not really sure. You can do a lot better — watching the entire Dragon Tattoo trilogy would be a better use of your time, for example (even if Oplev only directed the first installment) — but you can also do way worse. There are a couple of really terrific scenes in Dead Man Down, and seeing its honesty about its subject matter makes me admire it.