Niels Arden Oplev, the Danish director behind the first cinematic interpretation of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium novel trilogy (David Fincher’s version followed two years later), makes his English-language debut with Dead Man Down, a revenge thriller that unfortunately fails to triumph over innumerable weighty issues, namely screenwriter J.H. Wyman’s by-the-numbers script, pacing issues and an irritatingly dour mood.
Victor (Colin Farrell), a Hungarian immigrant, is posing as a low-life criminal in a bid to exact revenge on Alphonse (Terrence Howard), the crime boss responsible for the brutal deaths of his wife and daughter. However, when his badly scarred car crash victim and neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) discovers his true identity and threatens to turn him in unless he helps her exact her own breed of revenge, he quickly realises he may be in over his head.
It’s safe to say that from here on Dead Man Down unravels as a series of awkward twists and turns before reaching a destructive end. Part moody potboiler, part off-beat romance, Wyman doesn’t take the time to establish a solid structure or consistent tone, therefore resulting in a film that clumsily hangs in the balance. It’s a challenge, then, even for the most dedicated of viewer to maintain interest when the film plods along listlessly.
The dull haze is occasionally – and mercifully – broken, mostly by well-oiled action sequences that highlight Oplev’s skill as a director. But even they feel remarkably reigned in, even in spite of the films 15 certificate, urban setting and revenge-orientated narrative. Expletives are all well and good, and there’s plenty of testosterone, but when you have a lead character who is so conflicted by violence, it seems bizarre that his undertakings should be so underplayed and muted.
Oplev does his best to cover over the script’s cracks, but there’s simply too many, and his direction and the aesthetic choices implemented by cinematographer Paul Cameron are quite clearly limited by the materials shortcomings. Likewise, Farrell and Rapace conduct themselves well, but their characters are so shoddily constructed that there’s only so much they can do to anchor the film. Isabelle Huppert and Dominic Cooper crop up in supporting roles, which only intensifies the peculiarity further.
It would be a lie to say that hopes were high for Dead Man Down to deliver in a big way, yet it seems a shame to see it fail quite so miserably due to the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera. It’s not a complete write off though, if only to see people deserving of better – Oplev, Farrell and Rapace, included – do their utmost to save an already dead script from being a complete failure of a film. And for that, Dead Man Down deserves a reluctant viewing.