This film from director Niels Ardem Oplev (the original version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) is a weird hybrid. It’s essentially a revenge fantasy that, like so many such genre pieces, winds up with a big, explosive, bloody showdown. But Oplev also wants it to have an aura of fake profundity. That explains the somber tone, the dragged-out pacing and the spuriously poetic romance, meant to illustrate how two broken people can be redeemed by love.
In terms of plot, the script by J.H. Wyman doesn’t benefit from Oplev’s lapidary approach, which sets off its logical lapses in the broadest relief. Colin Farrell plays Vic, a trusted henchman of shady real-estate mobster Alphonse (Terrence Howard). Alphonse is being threatened by a mysterious stalker who’s torturing him with puzzle-like pieces of a photograph that when completed will presumably reveal his identity and motive. But though Vic saved Alphonse’s life during a shoot-out with a rival he suspected of being his tormentor, his grim, opaque manner suggests hidden depths beneath the loyal exterior.
And that’s indeed the case. It turns out that Vic is the sender of the sinister messages. As will be laboriously revealed later on, he’s actually the sole survivor of a hit that Alphonse had some Albanian thugs perpetrate a couple of years earlier. His wife and child were killed, but though presumed dead he escaped, took a new identity and became a member of Alphonse’s gang. (How he managed all this goes conveniently unexplained.) Now he’s taunting his supposed boss in preparation for killing him, the rest of the crew and the Albanians in one fell swoop.
But all his plans get sidetracked when Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a woman who lives in the high-rise opposite his, makes contact and, after a brief flirtation, informs Vic that she witnessed Vic killing a man his apartment—the fellow Alphonse had deputized to find the stalker, and who’d discovered Vic’s secret. Beatrice wants revenge, too—against the drunk driver who’d disfigured her face—and says she’ll keep quiet only if Vic kills the man. Naturally they fall in love over time, what with Vic promising to do as she wishes and she helping him out of various scrapes as his plans unravel.
There are standard-issue action sequences scattered throughout the movie—that opening shoot-out between rival gangs, a scene in which Vic, armed with a high-powered rifle, shoots a couple of Alphonse’s men and is nearly caught, and the culminating confrontation at Alphonse’s house, with Beatrice his prisoner. But much of the running-time is devoted to Vic and/or Beatrice looking morose and world-weary, to a subplot about Vic’s gang pal Darcy (Dominic Cooper) slowly figuring out that his buddy is the stalker, and inserts of Vic torturing the brother of the Albanian kingpin whom he’s kidnapped as a means of luring the gang to Alphonse’s warehouse lair. (That culminates in the fellow being eaten by rats, rather graphically.) There’s also room for Vic’s sessions with his late wife’s sage uncle (F. Murray Abraham) and scenes for Isabelle Huppert to mug it up in that sophisticated French manner (including a disquisition on Tupperware) as Beatrice’s mother Valentine, whose deafness comes and goes as the script demands.
There’s really very little to “Dead Man Down” besides the revenge formula featuring glum protagonists in Farrell and Rapace and a slick but empty villainous turn by Howard. (A supporting turn by wrestler Wade Barrett may appeal to fans of the WWE, which helped finance the movie, but will be of no moment to anybody else.) But like the old “Death Wish” franchise, it also wants to say something important—about random acts of violence, bigotry, greed, coping with grief and loss, and the possibility of redemption through love.
But all that really doesn’t amount to much. Despite a physical production, overseen by designer Neils Sejer and art director Jesse Rosenthal, that captures the bleakness of the story and cinematography by Paul Cameron that conveys the dark atmosphere with convincing—if hardly pleasurable—expertise, the picture obstinately remains a noirish, rather ugly crime melodrama with pretensions that never get past pulp cliché.