Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dead Man Down

DEAD MAN DOWN              B-                   
USA  (110 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Niels Arden Oplev

Even the most damaged heart can be mended. Even the most damaged heart.       
—Darcy (Dominic Cooper)

Though he built his career on made-for-TV movies in Denmark, director Niels Arden Oplev made an international splash with his highly inventive take on the opening chapter of Stieg Larsson’s The Millenniun Trilogy, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2009), which also introduced a generally shattering performance by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, also seen in Beyond (Svinalängorna) (2010), where in both performances she plays a bitterly angry survivor of childhood trauma.  In his first experience working in America with a budget that for this film alone may exceed all of his other films put together, featuring a terrific cast, the film is bound and determined to deliver the obligatory Hollywood explosive sequences, which have become so routine and standardized in American big budget entertainment that anything without it is likely called an indie film.  Something out of the revenge genre, this action thriller focuses on two emotionally wounded characters who have each survived a horrible ordeal, yet both have eyes on obtaining revenge, becoming not only obsessive but maniacally driven to exact their own brand of justice. Colin Farrell, where you’d have to go back to IN BRUGES (2008) to find a performance this stylishly intense, plays Victor, a Hungarian immigrant looking to establish a new life in America, but his wife and daughter were killed under mysterious circumstances, becoming a low level gangster for the corrupt mobster Alphonse (Terrence Howard) who had his family killed, where he is believed dead as well, but changed his identity.  Living on the same floor in the high rise building across the way is Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), where the two meet by strangely seeing one another from their respective buildings.  Beatrice is disfigured, especially on one side of her face, from an auto accident caused by a drunken driver that she continues to rage against with open hostility, as he only served three months in jail.  Living with Beatrice is her diminutive mother, Isabelle Huppert no less, speaking broken English and French, looking after her adored daughter by baking cookies, maintaining her good humor, and occasionally putting a smile on her daughter’s face.  Both are the kind of women who simply take over your life with a zest for living most of us are incapable of experiencing, where Beatrice opens Victor’s eyes when he wasn’t even looking. 

Using strange flashbacks that aren’t even initially understood, Victor repeatedly stares at his computer screen watching home videos of his wife and daughter, dead to the world in more ways than one as he’s completely unresponsive to most people, so his best friend is fellow gangster Darcy (Dominic Cooper), a nervous and  fidgety guy who’s also a nonstop blabbermouth given a second chance at life by his generously understanding wife and newborn, suggesting “even the most damaged heart can be mended.”  This understanding clicks in Victor’s brain, as he’s obviously on a circuitous route to hell and damnation, where he has his apartment set up as a surveillance lab, with tapped cellphones where he can hear every conversation within Alphonse’s inner circle and a secret room hidden behind the refrigerator that offers photos, memorabilia, and other clues about each of the gangland players, like a commemorative memorial, even though they are still alive.  This is an indication of Victor’s mindset, however, as in his head they are already dead.  Initially we think he may be a cop infiltrating this gang, watching every move they make, until eventually we realize the convoluted path this picture is taking by making Colin Farrell a one-man wrecking crew, a Rambo-like killing machine with designs on revenge.  When he finally meets Beatrice, her burning need for revenge is not so hard for him to understand, though the film reaches a hysterical level of anxiety when she blackmails him with cellphone video footage of him killing a man in his apartment, vowing to turn it over to the police unless he executes the driver who mangled her face.  Once you understand Victor’s detached emotional level is on par with Rambo, Sylvester Stallone as scorned Vietnam vet John Rambo in FIRST BLOOD (1982), the only decent one of the series, dead bodies are simply part of the playing field.  While Victor, still a young guy, claims he learned about guns in the Hungarian army, they haven’t exactly fought in any wars recently, so his moody seclusion with CIA-like skills on weapons, surveillance techniques, explosive devices, not to mention shooting skills with automatic weapons make him something of a man with a mysterious past.    

Written by J.H. Wyman, one of the feature writers of J.J. Abrams’ current sci-fi TV series Fringe (2008 to present), and shot by Paul Cameron, a co-cinematographer of Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL (2004), the film has a sophisticated, European arthouse look, with plenty of well composed shots from unusual angles, mixing dilapidated buildings, empty warehouses, and plenty of street action along with conflicting stories about gangland killings, mysterious letters with cryptic messages sent to Alphonse with only partially completed photos, where Alphonse initially targets who he thinks is behind it all, blowing away an entire detail of criminal drug operators in the process, which draws the ire of none other than mob boss Armand Assante, a legendary gangster figure and Emmy winner playing John Gotti, who has also been receiving the same letters, which couldn’t have been sent by anyone from his drug unit after they were already killed, sending him into a furious rage, where both men have to find a leak in their organization.  In a sequence out of SAW (2004 and counting), Victor has a bound and blindfolded hostage that he’s keeping in an abandoned warehouse, one of the Albanian killers that actually murdered his wife and child.  In fact, this guy has so many events going on at once, with his buddy Darcy continually blowing in his ear on his cellphone, filling him in on the latest developments, where most would be hard-pressed to keep track of them all, juggling a developing romance in between all his other gangster interests, all seemingly impossible, yet these various projects do amp up the intensity level, even if the viewer finds much of it preposterous.  But this typifies what passes for Hollywood entertainment, where men have to rise to the level of superheroes, showing the capabilities of Rambo, where a huge part of the appeal are the special effects sequences blowing things up and high risk, showdown moments of blowing people away.  With terrific acting performances on display throughout, including an interesting twist featuring the European talent of Rapace, Huppert, and Assante, not to mention a director that knows how to build suspense, the redemptive love interest of damaged souls may simply be too much, turning more existential, as there’s plenty more carnage yet to come.  Despite the unpredictable twists and turns, there are too many holes and improbabilities, including scenes that make little sense, left dangling in midair as if something significant was edited or left out, yet overall, as an action and psychological thriller with a fixation on revenge, the well developed characters keep things interesting.


  1. Solid review Robert. When the finale of the movie happens, there was a part of me that actually did care about what was happening, but then I thought to myself, "Is there anything else in the movie you like besides acting and action?" However, I couldn't think of anything.

  2. Hey thanks for the comments, Dan.

    You have to like the brooding mystery of the two lead characters, and it was well directed, given the arthouse treatment of a Hollywood film, which is not something you see everyday. Dominic Cooper kind of steals the film with his dogged-like persistence, which really adds suspense near the end. Not often you see a Hollywood action thriller with a heart, even though that aspect couldn't have been more underplayed. I felt the dark underworld was well developed, but they couldn't figure out how to make it all work.