Dead Man Down is promising but falls back on genre trappings

Dead Man Down

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

Genre can be a double-edged sword for even the most talented and versatile filmmaker: hew too close to convention and you risk falling into cliche, stray too far and you risk alienating your core audience.

I think it’s revealing that two of my favorite genre films of recent years – Shane Black’s vaguely satirical crime thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Drew Goddard’s postmodern slasher horror The Cabin in the Woods – both deconstruct their respective genres.

Apart from the work of specific directors, like Martin Scorsese, who has succeeded in making four uniquely special gangster films over the course of a forty year career, I find it difficult to get overly excited about the straightforward crime thriller. The world’s first full-length feature was The Story of the Kelly Gang back in 1906; how many stories can there be left to tell.

Despite this, I chose to watch Dead Man Down primarily because of its cast, which includes Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, and Terrence Howard with the added incentive of its being directed by Niels Arden Oplev, who previously worked with Noomi on the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and written by JH Wyman, who was co-show-runner on Fringe. A Rotten Tomatoes rating of 38%, however, did not seem particularly promising.

Dead Man Down tells the story of Victor (Farrell), a lieutenant of New York kingpin Alphonse Hoyt (Howard). The opening sequence, in which Hoyt lays waste to an English rival’s drug den, presents Victor as just another lackey, but the truth is that Victor has infiltrated Hoyt’s mob in order to bring him down. Though his accent may be Lower East Side, Victor is, in fact, a Hungarian emigre whose family was killed in one of Hoyt’s real estate schemes.

As such, “Victor” has reinvented himself as a stone-cold mobster and set out to destroy Hoyt; first, driving him into paranoia through the strategic execution of his inner council then setting him against the Russian gang to whom he outsourced the hit. So far, it sounds like fairly standard revenge flick fare: a man’s family is murdered leading him to go on a rampage against those responsible.

However, the situation changes for Victor when he encounters Beatrice (Rapace), a scarred but beautiful neighbor from the apartment block across from his. Their initial contact – eyes meet from an opposing balcony, a window; a halfhearted wave – shows that, even in close quarters, they are both isolated human beings. There’s an almost Rear Window, or perhaps West Side Story, feel to this interaction, but it soon becomes clear, despite all their reservation, how exposed they are.

Beatrice lives with her mother and holds within an all-consuming hate. After a cautious but promising first date, she reveals her intent: having witnessed Victor murder one of Hoyt’s men, she plans to blackmail him into killing the man responsible for her disfigurement, a drunk driver.

After an impressive performance in Joel Schumacher’s supremely underrated Tigerland, Colin Farrell built up a reputation as a charming but slightly wooden pretty boy leading man. It wasn’t till 2008’s In Bruges rehabilitated his image as a credible actor that Farrell truly found his niche: he might not stand out overly in the action stakes, but as a small-time hoodlum there’s none better.

There’s something about Farrell’s baleful stare that speaks of hidden vulnerability and allows him to elicit sympathy even when playing, for instance, a child-killing hitman. Rapace, meanwhile, is best known for playing darkly mysterious, gypsy-like characters, such as in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and the Swedish Millennium series. Dead Man Down gives her the chance to try something new.

The clothes her character Beatrice wears – tied-off shirts and high heels – speak of a breezy, confident young woman whose way of life was taken away from her by a cruel twist of fate. Though her scars merely mar rather than take away her loveliness, it’s understandable how a trauma such as she underwent might force her to turn inwards and drive her on the path towards vengeance.

Farrell’s Victor spends his nights watching projected family videos of his wife and infant daughter play across the blueprints and automatic weapons that line his room: his whole existence is now focused on bringing Hoyt down and he is willing to die to achieve his end.

For Beatrice, Victor provides an opportunity to level the score; for Victor, Beatrice is the chance of another fate. His longing, not lustful expression as she changes in another room suggests a different, domestic outcome and reinforces the sense of tragedy to which the film is inexorably building.

Their awkward, painful negotiation towards a new and better kind of living was, to me, the most compelling element of Dead Man Down. Victor’s skilled manipulation of those around him towards his ultimate ends is fairly generic, but certain touches of J.H. Wyman’s script – such as Beatrice’s busybody mother who encourages her relationship with Victor, but who, due to her deafness, can’t hear the murder they’re planning – provide an enjoyable irony to proceedings.

Terrence Howard’s mob boss, Hoyt, is too slick and lacks menace, though Dominic Cooper gives nicely layered turn as Victor’s best and only friend Darcy; the one member of the crew whom he does not want to kill but whose amateur detective work threatens to endanger his plan. Luckily, though the film telegraphs it’s developments, it neatly averts more than one obvious outcome.

Ultimately, Dead Man Down is a redemption story of two characters, neither of whom are seeking redemption, that save each other. It starts with Cooper’s Darcy, baby in arms, musing on the need for the human heart to mend, to make connections, and ends with a shootout, an unfortunate necessity of the genre. Oplev’s direction, with its wandering camera, loosely recalls Scorsese’s, but, feels more like an inversion of Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock than a new Mean Streets.

Dead Man Down is a crime thriller with a strong thematic arc, but one which is held back by the demands of the genre. The romance and gangster components of the story weave together nicely and the film even manages a few convincing twists along the way yet by the end it all feels somewhat small beer. It also wastes an extended cameo by F. Murray Abraham – for shame!

Even so, given what little is on at the cinema – Tom Cruise starring sci-fi composite Oblivion, po-faced White-House-under-siege actioner Olympus Has Fallen (one of two such films due out this year), new director Fede Alvarez’s surprisingly good horror reboot Evil Dead – it might be worth a look.*

¬†*Unless you haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet, in which case go see Iron Man 3. Shane Black rocks!

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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