Last week saw the English debut from Korean director Park Chan-Wook, and now with Dead Man Down we’re seeing another American feature from an acclaimed foreign director, Niels Arden Oplev (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Park evaporated any fear of him losing his personality in America thanks to the visually spectacular Stoker. His fingerprints are all over that film, and it’s a shame the same cannot be said for Oplev. While a high-minded Oplev appears every now and then in Dead Man Down, he is overshadowed by the tropes we expect from a WWE movie. When their logo came on screen, audience members laughed, and for good reason.
Given what WWE is famous for, one would expect a great deal of machismo from Dead Man Down. The film’s more action-heavy moments are unsurprisingly its greatest strength, but that WWE sensibility seriously clashes with the drama Oplev and his cast are aiming for. The two tones never mesh coherently, leading to an uneven revenge movie.
The protagonists, Victor (Colin Farrell) and Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), share a common goal: revenge. Victor is out to avenge his family, while Beatrice wants the drunk driver who scarred her face to pay. Victor has embedded himself in the mob responsible for his wife and child’s death in order to get close to Alphonse (Terrence Howard). The mob boss has been receiving death threats for months, and we find out early on in the film (and from all the tv spots/trailers) that they’re from Victor.
There’s already a dramatic issue with that set up, being that it’s easy to get behind Victor’s reasoning, but not so much for Beatrice. She is fine not hiding her scars and even sees them as a part of her identity now and yet still wants the drunk driver to suffer. Victor points out the seriousness of taking a life to her, but even that adds another major problem to the film.
Victor asks Beatrice, “Do you know what it’s like to kill a man?” She doesn’t, but according to the film, it’s pretty awesome. J.H. Whyman’s script asks these heavy questions, but then answers them with contradictory gun-play. Whenever Whyman is about to strike at something interesting, the movie seems to remember it’s a WWE movie. What’s most strange about the movie’s violence is how Oplev showed the brutality in The Girl with Dragon Tattoo. Here the gunplay is joyful, not harsh. That wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t seem like the film thought otherwise. The action, which is brief, is crafted with skill. Dead Man Down is thrilling in these moments, but not when it’s going on about revenge – something a few characters meet with no ramifications whatsoever. Best of all it’s a breather from the character of Beatrice.
How do we know Beatrice is damaged? Because she comically plucks out the eyebrows of a customer and drives Victor’s car into a busy intersection. Both scenes are overwrought and unnecessary. Even worse in the intersection scene is how any empathy previously built up for Beatrice is taken away. She wants to teach the drunk driver – who is played so cartoonishly – a lesson, and yet she doesn’t have a problem almost killing Victor and other drivers by halting his car in traffic. Call that a nitpick, but it makes the character come off as insane almost from the start, not someone consumed by a thirst for vengeance.
Beatrice’s story slows the film down. At 90 minutes, Oplev’s movie would make for a satisfying B-thriller. With all the overly-serious and muddled conflicts we see, it’s only occasionally entertaining. The cast does all that they can, but, by the end, Dead Man Down plays as a confused, noble misfire.
The Upside: Dominic Cooper brings some weight in the semi-comedic sidekick role; Farrell has his moments; well-crafted action; Isabelle Huppert, playing Beatrice’s mother, turns a forced character into a welcomed presence
The Downside: Even at under 2 hours the film is bloated; tonally unsure; the character of Beatrice sinks the film
On The Side: The audience at my screening must have thought the film was a comedy…