Dead Man Down is a film that's hard to get a grasp on, and that's a large reason why it's so compelling. Even the marketing folks couldn't quite figure out how to approach it, launching what is best described as a "schizophrenic" ad campaign. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev and starring Noomi Rapace, both having had their breakout in the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, part of the plan was clearly to target that audience. But WWE Studios is a major co-producer, and the ads targeted at fans of Friday Night Smackdown were all about explosions, guns, and Rapace's curvy bod.
A perfectly honed balance of American action and European art house sensibilities is struck in the final product, an entertaining revenge thriller with well-choreographed flashes of violence and steamy chemistry between Rapace and Colin Farrell. We get a taste of the impeccable supporting cast right from the start in a compelling and ominous monologue given by Darcy (Dominic Cooper), a low-level gangster whose concern for the future of newborn son is moving and heartfelt. While it sets the stage for the contemplative tone the film basks in, what follows immediately after is straight up B-movie pulp. Darcy and his son's godfather, Victor (Farrell) are called in by their boss, Hoyt (Terrence Howard), to barge into a rival crime lord’s crib. For three months, Hoyt's been receiving taunting messages, while the people closest to him have been dropping like flies. Busting in to this rival's spot, while he's busy banging a prostitute by the way, a massive gunfight breaks out that leaves few standing.
There are no lengthy introductions, no set up, no exposition that would grind the momentum to a halt. We're just tossed right in the pool and expected to swim. It's an interesting baptism by fire that is kind of exhilarating, to just figure things out as the pieces slowly fall into place. Did Hoyt attack the right man? And if not, then who is the real culprit making his life miserable? And why would they do it? After appearing to be an inconsequential piece of the puzzle, Victor is tasked by Hoyt with finding the man responsible.
Joining the pantheon of tortured cinematic hitmen, we learn that Victor's life is actually pretty terrible when not on the job. He lives in a crappy, rundown apartment in a terrible part of town. His only comfort comes from the occasional glimpses he steals of his sexy neighbor, Beatrice (Rapace), who lives in the opposite building. After exchanging a few flirty glances, the two meet, and we learn her tragic story. Her face a scarred mess, yet still retaining much in the way of beauty and strength, Beatrice reveals she was in a car accident caused by a drunk driver who got off scott-free. She now lives in her home as basically a recluse alongside her half-deaf, doting mother surprisingly played by the great Isabelle Huppert.
While Oplev's superb, delicate direction is a highlight, it's the relationship between Victor and Beatrice that really shines. We soon learn there's a lot more to their story than it appears. She witnessed from afar Victor killing one of Hoyt's men, and is using that information to blackmail him into killing the one responsible for her accident. At the same time, we begin to see that Victor was also happy once, before tragedy poisoned his soul. He's got a complicated plan to bring down Hoyt and everyone who wronged him in the past. Their parallel revenge schemes are both complicated and emboldened by the other, but it's nothing compared to the complexity of their growing attraction. Both are badly damaged people, who have filled their lives with so much hate that there's little room for love to grow. The question is whether or not they'll let their thirst for vengeance stand in the way of a real chance at happiness.
Displaying much of the same fire and vulnerability that made her such a perfect choice for the role of Lisbeth Salander, this is unquestionably the best she's been since then. She and Farrell smolder together on screen, even though most of their scenes are filled with awkward conversations and furtive looks. It's what isn't said aloud that tells us so much about their characters. He's defensive and standoffish, while she always has just a hint of shame and embarrassment. The entire cast is at their best, although Huppert is woefully underused for an actress of her skill.
When violence happens it's beautifully shot, graceful, yet brutal and unforgiving. The film crescendos into a fiery, explosive finale that should run counter to the established tone, but it completely works. As the bullets fly and all of Victor's best laid plans literally go up in smoke, it feels like this is the conclusion we were hoping for all along. While the year is still young, Dead Man Down is easily one of the year's first great surprises.