Friday, March 8, 2013

In Theaters: DEAD MAN DOWN (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Niels Arden Oplev.  Written by J.H. Wyman.  Cast: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard, Isabelle Huppert, F. Murray Abraham, Armand Assante, Franky G, Luis Da Silva, Jr., Roy James Wilson, Jr., James Biberi. (R, 116 mins)

DEAD MAN DOWN is the Hollywood debut of Swedish director Niels Arden Oplev, reuniting with his GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO star Noomi Rapace.  On the surface, it's a conventional mob/revenge thriller and the script by FRINGE writer/co-executive producer J.H. Wyman is frequently silly, but DEAD MAN DOWN is compelling and stylish throughout, bolstered by strong performances and Oplev bringing an offbeat sensibility and unexpected elements to some largely familiar proceedings.

Colin Farrell is Victor, a Hungarian enforcer who's part of the crew of NYC mobster Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard).  For months, someone's been offing Alphonse's guys and sending him cryptic handwritten messages accompanied by puzzle pieces of a photograph.  He's got everyone on high alert after the latest member of his crew to be killed is found crammed into a freezer in the basement of his home. Victor is a dutiful soldier--he's relatively new but earns Alphonse's trust by saving his life during a drug den shootout with some turf rivals that Alphonse mistakenly blames for the killings--but lacks the ambition of his friend Darcy (Dominic Cooper), also a relatively new face but one who really wants to work his way up in the organization now that he's a husband and father.  Loner Victor has no one except Beatrice (Rapace), a scarred young woman who lives with her mostly-deaf mother (Isabelle Huppert) in the neighboring high-rise and with whom Victor shares frequent nods and waves while both are looking out of their windows.  Darcy senses great pain in Victor's past, but doesn't press the issue, instead passing on something his wife once told him: "Whatever it is, even the most damaged hearts can heal."

25-year-old Beatrice is still recovering from reconstructive surgery after her face was shattered a year earlier when she was hit by a drunk driver.  She works up the courage to slip a card into Victor's mailbox with her phone number, and the two go out to dinner.  But then Beatrice drops the bomb:  she's got cell phone footage of Victor killing a man in his apartment--the guy stuffed into Alphonse's freezer--and she won't go to the cops if Victor agrees to kill the drunk driver who disfigured her.  Victor reluctantly agrees but has other things on his plate:  namely--and this isn't a spoiler--he's the guy killing Alphonse's goons and sending the notes and puzzle pieces, and he's been doing the same thing with a rival Albanian crime organization in an attempt to turn them both against each other as part of an elaborate revenge plot.

Oplev and Wyman fuse numerous genres and styles throughout:  the film is equal parts noir, Hitchcock, chilly Scandinavian gloom, early 1990s Luc Besson, and vintage Abel Ferrara grit.  Maybe it's the notion of a foreign filmmaker's take on NYC (most of this was shot in Philadelphia), but much of DEAD MAN DOWN reminded me of Besson's THE PROFESSIONAL (1994), another film that succeeds despite its many inherently absurd elements.  Stripped to its barebones, the basic vengeance storyline is nothing new, but elsewhere, the film journeys down other, less predictable avenues.  The tentative, baby steps relationship that Victor and Beatrice embark upon is very nicely-played by both Farrell and Rapace and suprisingly appealing in its own strange way, with added help from Huppert as the merrily oblivious mom who keeps trying to play matchmaker while looking for her hearing aids and badgering Victor into taking some cookies home with him (Beatrice puts some of her mom's lemon chicken in Victor's sparse fridge in one scene, leading to this odd bit of dialogue: "I'll just wedge it in here between the mustard and the plastic explosive").

DEAD MAN DOWN isn't the kind of film that's going to generate much business at the box office and, like THE PROFESSIONAL, it's being met by critics with general indifference at best to outright scorn at worst.  But THE PROFESSIONAL has come to be regarded as a classic of sorts, and while I'm not saying DEAD MAN DOWN will be held in that same high esteem, I did find it highly entertaining and with enough off-kilter quirks and peculiarities to keep my interest, and it's the kind of film that will prove endlessly rewatchable during its long future life as a cable and Netflix streaming staple.  There's also small supporting turns by reliable character aces like F. Murray Abraham and Armand Assante, an elaborately ludicrous sniper sequence, and one insane bit with an SUV driving into a house and down into the basement.  It's not a film that's meant to be taken too seriously and it might even fall under "guilty pleasure," but I liked how Oplev presents a standard-issue revenge flick in non-standard ways, focusing on the actors and the performances and giving the characters room to grow and be established.  Not everything in DEAD MAN DOWN works--Darcy is meant to be a conscience or beacon of some sort for Victor, but the character is mostly intrusive, relegated to annoying Victor by sucking up to Alphonse and doing some detective work that threatens to derail Victor's entire plan--and some might find the villain's comeuppance too abrupt, but the story ultimately isn't about that.  It's more about two very damaged people dealt some extraordinarily shitty cards and finding a very strange--and incredibly violent--path to healing.

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