(by Dustin Putman
Two damaged souls thirsty for revenge—and maybe a little companionship—collide in "Dead Man Down," a slack neo-noir crime drama directed by Niels Arden Oplev (2010's superior Danish adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"). Undeniably European in its sensibilities, the film bides far too much time standing along the sidelines rather than acting on its seamy, corkscrew payback plot. Even when it has become imminently apparent to the viewer who is who, and why so-and-so wants this specific person dead, writer J.H. Wyman (2001's "The Mexican") crawls rather than raises tensions on his way to the finish. Those patient enough to stick it out are rewarded with a little action and gunfire, but by then it's just an obligatory means to an end. Better is the concentration on character, namely the picture's two complicated protagonists. When it's just them on the screen, there is a certain sizzle that comes with the magnetic presence of fine performers doing their thing. Sadly, the story at hand keeps getting in the way. Article continues below
In an East Side Manhattan shot on location but curiously resembling Toronto, Victor (Colin Farrell) is the right-hand man of crime boss Alphonse (Terrence Howard), they and their entire organization currently in search of the deadly foe out to frame and assassinate them. Still grieving over the deaths of his wife and daughter, Victor makes an unexpected connection with a woman living in the building across from his. Her name is Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), and she's taking the first cursory steps toward meeting new people since the car crash that left her face scarred. During their first date, Beatrice's motivations take a sharp turn when she reveals she has incriminating evidence that Victor killed a man in his apartment. She will refrain from going to the authorities, but first wants him to kill the drunk driver who caused her accident.
There is an unconventionally sweet romance buried beneath the incessant thoughts of vengeance in "Dead Man Down," just as there is also the passing hints of a cliché-shattering thriller-cum-love-story along the lines of 2011's towering "Drive" in its genetics, but the filmmakers never come close to reaching those heights. For one, the narrative turns downright glacial following an attention-grabbing first act, taking almost twice as long for the characters to connect the dots that viewers have already become privy to. There are surprises in J.H. Wyman's script, but instead of using them to raise momentum, they more often than not serve to get in the way of the intriguing central relationship between Victor and Beatrice. Even as she blackmails her would-be suitor, she also can't help but be drawn to him. They've both experienced disappointments and pain in their lives, and aren't sure how to move on. That Victor can see behind her scars at the beauty she once was and, honestly, still is, is a promising sign. "He's kind of grumpy," Beatrice's mother (Isabelle Huppert) comments after meeting him. "I have a good feeling about this one."
In true Ryan-Gosling-in-"Drive" fashion, Colin Farrell (2012's "Seven Psychopaths") says very little as Victor, but is a good listener. He's certainly not the warmest of individuals and is capable of committing any number of crimes, but as one learns more and more about his circumstances throughout, there is a certain clarity that comes with the decisions he's made. When Beatrice demands that he do away with the dirtbag who nearly killed her, he at first acts out of duty—what choice has he got, when she's dangling incriminating evidence in his face?—and then out of a special concern for her well-being. Victor knows she is not a killer, and is also aware of what being responsible for someone else's death can do to a person. As Beatrice, Noomi Rapace (2012's "Prometheus") is nothing short of spellbinding, bringing a sense of loss, confusion, and yearning to her character that only partially appears to be on the written page. When she disappears for a little while in the second half, her absence is noticeable and detrimental. Beatrice is an original creation who deserves to be transplanted into a different film where she is the solo lead and there aren't layers of heavy plotting getting in the way.
"Dead Man Down" deviates from the mainstream—that is almost always a plus—but director Niels Arden Oplev can never quite figure out what kind of motion picture he wants to make. The lensing by Paul Cameron (2012's "Total Recall") is gloomy yet evocative, a complimentary tonal cousin to the story at hand, and other tech credits are ace. Where trouble begins to bubble up is in the hesitancy to move things along, whether it be the revenge elements or the coinciding interactions between Victor and Beatrice that are so irresolute for so long it isn't until the very end that the movie cements its romantic intentions. In an attempt to go low-key, the film eventually grows to feel a little on the daft and slow side, spinning its wheels as supporting players catch up to what they should have figured out long ago. Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace are a pairing made in Hollywood heaven. It's too bad "Dead Man Down" can't quite pull itself out of purgatory.