A paranoid mob boss named Alphonse (Terrence Howard) is looking to expand his territory, but is currently distracted by an unknown assailant taking out his men and mailing him strange pictures to rub salt in the wound. His right hand man Victor (Colin Farrell) falls into the seducing grasp of his neighbor Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), who blackmails Victor into helping her rid of the man who's responsible for leaving her disfigured and destroying her life, which meddles with Victor's own vengeful agenda.
"Dead Man Down" is directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the man who brought us the original "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." It's his first English-language film and it reunites him with Swedish actress Noomi Rapace. What some don't realize is that "Dead Man Down" is actually a WWE Studios production; a production studio that was formerly notorious for casting wrestlers in starring roles. Stu Bennett, also known as Wade Barrett in WWE, has a supporting role in "Dead Man Down."
The crime thriller attempts to establish this neo-noir style, but basically reveals everything too early. So by the time other characters stumble onto the truth the audience has already known about it for well over an hour and it never really has that sense of mystery that could have added that extra spark it needed to be better than average.
The cast seems somewhat remarkable at first glance, but is a bit of a letdown overall. Most of the film rests on the shoulders of Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, but they never quite mesh properly on-screen together. Farrell shows a moment of passion when he reveals his identity to a hostage and is at his strongest when he's watching home movies in his apartment where he lets his eyes do all the talking, but is mostly forgettable the rest of the time. Rapace has made a career out of playing damaged characters, so she's at her best when she's threatening Victor into helping her or the moments when she breaks down from coping with her disfigurement. Terrence Howard is unintentionally hilarious as his high pitched cursing will make you laugh out loud. The most surprising additions are Dominic Cooper as one of Alphonse's men who's constantly playing detective and a brief appearance by Armand Assante as one of Alphonse's investors who suddenly has second thoughts.
There's a scene in the middle of the film where the camera kind of teeter-totters slowly while Victor and Alphonse talk to one another. This scene is like a metaphor for the entire film. On one hand, the film establishes several striking shots even though the film seems to purposely reside in this thick fog of darkness; the staircase sequence and the fireflies in the graveyard are visually fascinating. Imagine a sloth trying to sludge through a mud puddle and you've got an idea of how the film progresses. Despite its pace being extremely slow, there's this tense atmosphere and the conversations between Victor and Beatrice and Alphonse and Victor are intriguing despite never really going anywhere.
On the other hand, it seems like the film is trying to sabotage itself at times. The first big action sequence in the film doesn't have a very big impact because they decided to have it dance along to dubstep, which doesn't work at all and just makes everything feel out of place. What little logic the film had is thrown out the window in the final act. Why settle on a plan that's been carefully constructed from the ground up for months when we can settle for something more spontaneous and impulsive?
"Dead Man Down" is really sluggish at first, but tends to be really compelling in this overpowering "so bad it's good" kind of way. The story is a tale of revenge coiled inside another tale of revenge wrapped around a power struggle, so things get more than a little convoluted at times. Its explosive finale tries to live up to the rest of the film's slow building nature, but is mostly just impotent. Good, bad, even "Dead Man Down" can't seem to decide.