Review: Dead Man Down (Serving Dinner Cold and Revenge at Room Temperature)

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There’s as much schmaltz as art in the new thriller by Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. There’s also a major bait and switch organized by the film’s marketing campaign that adds so much to the tension I’m going to do my best not to spoil it; such things deserve preservation.

Populated by immigrants and wantonly cruel circumstances, everyone is living out similar struggles in Dead Man Down. Enigmatically, the first shot is a baby asleep. Dominic Cooper talks about his girlfriend, their baby boy and how “every heart can be mended.” “We’re not meant to be alone,” he says. If it weren’t deployed with such dryness I’d hate it immediately, but Oplev is dropping a breadcrumb: you don’t see them again after this moment, but kids are at the heart of this movie. Once we have them we’re beholden to them and cease to be interchangeable. The moment Cooper returns his baby to his barely dressed girlfriend, he and Colin Farrel ride off to meet his team of crooks, all of whom are as replaceable as light bulbs but not as bright. Someone is stalking Terrence Howard, the boss, and Farrel’s team is meant to find the person behind the death threats.

Dead Man Down keeps a decent clip but the reveals are slow and deliberate. Every new twist redefines something central: Colin Farrel’s motivation, Noomi Rapace’s vulnerability, Terrence Howard’s “authority.” In one gorgeous rhyme, Howard meets his boss (Armand Assante) and because the death threats have gone on too long he’s being relieved of his duties. “I need you around” Assante says, suggesting Howard won’t be. In the next scene, a cold and conniving Rapace brings Farrel some food and a rabbit’s foot because she “wants him around,” suggesting he won’t be. They’re all bad in their own worlds: Rapace wants to kill the man responsible for her scars and Farrel wants the same for his (less visible) wounds; ironically, their primary distinction from Howard is their agenda for killing “is personal” (see the schmaltz now?), pushing again this distinction between the private and the professional.

There’s silliness here as well--when it looks possible that Farrel will see Rapace in her undies, the “big reveal” isn't skin, it's the knowledge she brought him her home cooking--but Dead Man Down is ultimately a tidy balance between revenge thriller and redemption story. It has its villains who eat it, too.

The brightest attraction in this gripping potboiler is the cast, which is loaded to the gills with high pedigree actors like Isabelle Huppert, who comes just shy of stealing the show as Rapace’s comically deaf mother. F. Murray Abraham dons an accent and a world of charm to be Farrel’s Hungarian uncle, while Assante scares the crap out of Howard and, by artful proxy, us in under 5 minutes. For that scene, we can’t help being in the bad guy’s shoes, which is a remarkable stunt. He’s so bad he’s been compared to the devil, and at this point we don’t know why, but since all people seem to be equal (or at least living similar stories) why shouldn’t we fear for him? In Dead Man Down, everyone’s guilty and “every heart can be mended.”

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