WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.
The tagline for “Dead Man Down” is “revenge is coming.” But while revenge is a big theme, it’s really about forgiveness. The characters here have been forever wounded by a past that will not let them be, and they spend their time trying to avenge it in order to find some form of peace in their lives. What results is a movie that doesn’t break any new ground (few movies these days do anyway), but it is still a compelling motion picture filled with complex characters and twists you don’t see coming.
We meet Victor (Colin Farrell), the right hand man to the ruthless New York crime lord Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), who defends his boss in a nasty firefight at the movie’s start. Quickly we assume that Victor is as loyal to Alphonse as any gangland player could ever hope to be and that he will soon get a meteoric rise to the top of the criminal food chain. However, it turns out Victor is actually seeking revenge against Alphonse for killing his wife and child, and he is getting closer and closer to exacting that revenge.
But then into the picture comes Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a woman who lives in an apartment across from Victor’s. Beatrice is still recovering emotionally from a nasty car accident that has left her face permanently scarred. While the scar hasn’t taken away all of her beauty, it has destroyed her self-image and left her with a deep-seated rage she wants to be rid of.
After a dinner where the two of them make small talk and discover the things they have in common, Beatrice makes her real intentions clear to Victor; she wants him to kill the drunk driver that plowed into her car and ruined her face. Moreover, she is willing to blackmail Victor into doing this as she has evidence of him killing another man. Knowing that Victor is capable of taking a life, she gives him no choice but to take another. Both have strong motivations for vengeance, but can they tear themselves away from their rage long enough to see the damage they are doing to themselves?
Right from the start, “Dead Man Down” is filled with twists and turns which makes this average revenge thriller all the more entertaining to watch. Even if the twists aren’t entirely plausible, they keep us on the edge of our seats as we guess what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, you don’t.
But what I really liked about this movie was how wonderfully complex all the characters were. There is nothing black and white about them as everyone exists in a morally grey area. While Victor and Beatrice are clearly justified in having their revenge, we know that the ways they are seeking it will do not make them good people. Even Alphonse comes across as much more than an average one-dimensional bad guy as he is someone who certainly wasn’t born evil. While certain characters may deserve some form of punishment over others, no one comes out of this story seeming the least bit innocent.
“Dead Man Down” marks the first English language film from writer/director Niels Arden Oplev, the same man who gave us the original version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Now when filmmakers from a foreign country come over to America, their talents usually get compromised in the process. But Oplev doesn’t appear to have lost any of his skill here as he gives us a strong motion picture filled with fascinating characters. He also gets terrific performances from each of his actors as well as some strong visual moments such as a descent down the middle of a stairwell.
Colin Farrell has gone from doing needless remakes like “Fright Night” and “Total Recall” to terrific movies such as “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths.” He has become one of those actors who can go from playing a good guy to a bad guy with relative ease, and that makes him perfect for a character like Victor who could be seen as either. Farrell does excellent work in conveying Victor’s conflicted emotions as he goes about exacting his revenge. As he gets closer to achieving his goal, Victor begins to see how he is becoming just like those who destroyed his life. Seeing the pain in Farrell’s eyes as he makes this clear to the audience without words shows us just how great of an actor he can be when given the right material.
Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander, is a powerhouse as Beatrice. Watching Rapace deal with her rage as well as the bad luck life has dealt her is enthralling to take in, and the scenes where she is attacked by a group of children who see her as a monster are devastating to witness. Like Salander, Beatrice is stuck in a moment that forever changed the course of her life, but Rapace gets to showcase more of a vulnerability here that she wasn’t able to express as much in her star making performance. She remains a compelling actress to keep an eye on, and it’s great to see her reunited with Oplev for this movie.
But I have to say that the performance which most impressed me was Terrence Howard’s as Alphonse Hoyt. Now when you see an actor take on the role of an evil crime lord, you expect them to chew the scenery and give an over the top performance. But Howard doesn’t do that here, and it is clear that he has given this role a lot of thought. While there is no doubt that Alphonse is an evil dude, Howard is excellent in giving a method to the man’s madness. Howard left such a powerful impression on us with his Oscar nominated performance in “Hustle & Flow,” and his performance in “Dead Man Down” is a reminder of how he never lets us down as an actor.
In addition, there is a really good supporting performance by Dominic Cooper as Victor’s friend Darcy, and he has a wonderful scene at the start where he is holding his baby and talking about how he hopes being a father will lead him to a better future. The great Isabelle Huppert also shows up as Beatrice’s mom Valentine, and she remains a remarkable actress in even the smallest of roles. There’s also strong cinematography from Paul Cameron and a wonderfully atmospheric film score from composer Jacob Groth to take in as well.
“Dead Man Down” is not the equal of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and its climax is a bit over the top for a movie like this, but I liked how character driven it was and you don’t see many movies like that these days. It is also a compelling story about how the power of forgiveness is more important than the need for revenge. In this day and age, it is important to remember that.