With a head-scratching title and a trailer that makes it look like every other gun-toting action flick out there, Dead Man Down has slipped into theaters virtually unnoticed. And arriving at the same time as Oz the Great and Powerful (which almost tripled the best opening weekend take of any movie this year) doesn't help any.
But it turns out that Dead Man Down is a rock-solid, European-style action thriller that builds to one of the better conclusions to hit screens so far this year.
Crafted with the same finesse as movies like The American, Hanna, and Killing Them Softly, it's a slow-simmering film that focuses (thankfully) more on characters and atmosphere than on just upping the body count at every turn.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of moments wherein people meet their untimely end, but director Niels Arden Oplev (the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) knows and understands the power of restraint.
Colin Farrell is Victor, a henchman of Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), whose mafia-like gang is being threatened by an unknown outsider. Bodies start showing up in freezers, and notes and cryptic photo puzzles are received, leaving Alphonse to believe that someone is coming for him.
At the same time, Victor meets his neighbor Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a beautician whose face was disfigured in a car accident months earlier-- but her motives in meeting Victor aren't entirely romantic.
The screenplay by J.H. Wyman (TV's Fringe) has a welcome amount of depth to it, jumping right into the action without any back story or time wasted explaining what's going on; it's a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and watching Dead Man Down unfold provides the same level of satisfaction that you get when those final puzzle pieces start locking in place.
Both Farrell and Rapace turn in top-drawer performances as tortured souls, and the supporting cast, including Howard, up the quality even more. Screen legends Isabelle Huppert, F. Murray Abraham, and Armand Assante also make appearances-- though, for my money, they're all criminally underused.
Dead Man Down could have used a little polish here and there (a couple gaping plot holes keep it from being a truly memorable film), but if you like a little brain food with your Twizzlers, it's a bang-up good time.
@popcollin is the resident movie critic at Essex Cinemas in Essex, VT, and Cumberland 12 in Plattsburgh, NY.