Victor (Farrell), a professional killer and the right hand man to an underground crime lord in New York City (Howard), is seduced and blackmailed by Beatrice (Rapace), a crime victim seeking retribution. Their chemistry and intense relationship leads them to execute a violent and cathartic plan for revenge.
A crime thriller that is both thoughtful and fueled by violent brutality, Dead Man Down often seems like two different movies that pass in the night. It is dark, gritty, and explosive in style and substance, yet it often takes long, languorous breaks for moments of tenderness and human connection between a handful of deeply scarred souls with differing goals but related agendas. The scars are figurative for Victor (Colin Farrell), a stalwart Hungarian immigrant driven toward vengeance after the murder of his wife and daughter by a crime syndicate equally leveraged into drugs and real estate. His real name is Laszlo, and the crime lord Alphonse (Terrence Howard) believes he had been dispatched along with his family. In an elaborate plan, Victor/Laszlo has infiltrated Alphonse's gang as a loyal soldier to get close enough to kill them all. For Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a lonely woman whose apartment balcony faces Victor's, the scars are literal. She was disfigured in an accident caused by a recidivist drunk driver and wants her own deadly revenge. It's not hard to see where the relationship between Victor and Beatrice is heading once they meet and their individual goals are held up to the moral standards that were irreparably damaged by their tragedies. Beatrice is able to blackmail Victor to do her bidding even as Victor is up to his neck in an extremely complicated game to burn up his own past. And burn many things he does, including people, a bomb-laden pickup truck, and an elegant mansion where the last stand of a chaotic climax unfolds. Along the way there are several fierce gun battles and moments of disturbingly intimate viciousness that lend Dead Man Down a defiant edge in the genre of dark crime dramas. The highlight is a broad-daylight shootout and foot chase on a busy Manhattan street that features swooping camerawork, a progression of breathtaking practical stunt effects, and smart pacing that ends abruptly in calm as the players disappear into plain sight. J.H. Wyman's unusually structured script, with its extended pauses of meaningful quiet and bursts of terrible ferocity, is made better by the skill of Danish director Niels Arden Oplev in his American feature debut. Oplev made the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and he brings out the best in bringing along Noomi Rapace, even though the makeup of her facial damage doesn't really make her any less beautiful. Colin Farrell still has not found his mid-career stride, but his obsession and brooding brow give the tortured Victor a motivation that is clearly felt. The acting is a bigger bonus in some of the supporting roles, notably Dominic Cooper as Victor's friend and fellow gangland soldier. F. Murray Abraham appears as Victor's philosophical father-in-law, and it's terrific to see Armand Assante chomping into the persona of a quietly enraged mob boss. The iconic French actress Isabelle Huppert takes a graceful and scene-stealing turn as Beatrice's loving yet smothering mother. It's all an unusual mix of character and story that makes Dead Man Down stand up with a life all its own. --Ted Fry