Dead Man Down
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Niels Arden Oplev must really like pulp fiction. He takes something as lurid and preposterous as Stieg Larsson’s novel and treats the characters and story as with tasteful restraint. Such respectfulness encourages the viewer to treat it in kind, even if instinctively it’s clear that this is all rather trashy. Dead Man Down is the kind of material that could easily have been washed up as straight-to-video fare with a Statham or a Lundgren. It’s a less than subtle script that he chooses for his first English language film but Oplev maintains a sombre, reflective tone and so makes the somewhat absurd plot more palatable. If it’s not immediately obvious why he would be attracted to it, maybe it’s the opportunity, as with Lisbeth Salander, to achieve emotional resonance where there would usually be none.
J.H. Wyman’s screenplay pulls off some neat misdirection. In particular, the first 20 minutes set the tale moving without clear bearings; it’s actually a pleasant change not to have the rhyme and reason of the characters spelt out instantly. Elsewhere, there’s little to remind one of the sterling work he turned in throughout the recently ended TV series Fringe. Perhaps a science fiction canvas allowed such excesses to seem less glaring, because no one’s going to admit that the scenario he has come up with here is very likely. Victor, Colin Farrell’s Hungarian engineer, is out for revenge against Alphonse, Terrence Howard’s crime boss. To that end, he has inveigled himself into Alphonse’s organisation. His long game takes an unexpected turn when Beatrice, Noomi Rapace’s scarred beautician, reveals evidence of him murdering an associate in his apartment. If he doesn’t kill the man who left her disfigured, she will turn it in to the police. With Beatrice breaching his defences and his criminal associates getting closer to discovering the identity of whoever is preying on them, Victor finds himself in an increasingly desperate situation.
Farrell is buttoned down, his usual expressiveness suppressed beneath an immovable mask. He's rather good, as he usually is when he's not in a blockbuster. If Rapace doesn't quite connect, it’s in part because her character is not allowed the desperation and misery she really needs to contemplate such measures. And she's not nearly uglified enough to make the insults of "Monster!" plausible. There’s also strong support from Terence Howard, Dominic Cooper, Armand Assante and the always magnificent but ever-underused F Murray Abraham.
Victor's revenge plan is too intricate to be really likely to succeed, but Oplev ensures that it plays out suspensefully (there’s an excellent, tension-filled conversation piece between Victor and Alphonse in an empty office) until we reach a ridiculously overblown climax (of all the possible outcomes I envisaged, this one was very nearly the last). Which is good fun but seems like it muscled its way in from an entirely different movie.
Paul Cameron’s cinematography evokes a rich grey melancholy. The overcast gloom and creeping darkness is a character in itself, there’s a kind of beautiful despair to the imagery, lending a feeling that none of this can end well. I can only think that producer Neal Moritz offered the directing gig to Oplev by mistake, since this couldn’t be more different in tone to his usual fare (well, until the finale). This is the guy behind the Fast & Furious franchise and I suspect he was envisaging something slicker, punchier and less introspective. Dead Man Down (terrible title, but fitting the sort of film this might have been) is ultimately let down by being very goofy, but the clash of styles ensures you’re never quite sure how this one will pan out until it’s too late.