In "Dead Man Down," the new thriller that marks the American feature debut of Danish director Niels Arden Oplev (he directed the original "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), the filmmaker reteams with his former leading lady, Noomi Rapace, who plays another damaged young woman with a yen for revenge. The film, an odd mishmash of love story and violent action flick, is as inauspicious debut as you can imagine. It seems likely that Oplev was handed this film only because it's in a similar vein to "Dragon Tattoo." It's another dark, gritty crime thriller all about the healing power of vengeance. But the director is able to inject enough stylistic flourishes to keep things sporadically interesting, even as the plot becomes increasingly nonsensical.
Colin Farrell stars as the strong and silent Victor, a low-level thug under the employ of New York City crime boss Alphonse (Terrence Howard). For some time now, Alphonse's men have been getting picked off one by one, and he's been receiving threatening letters making it clear that he's the ultimate target. Increasingly desperate to save his own skin, Alphonse tasks his remaining men with rooting out the identity of whoever is gunning for him. Simultaneously, Victor makes the acquaintance of Beatrice (Rapace), the shy woman with a scarred face who lives in the apartment in the building across from his, and with whom he's been sharing flirtatious glances.
Once they get to know each other, Beatrice drops a bombshell: it seems that she witnessed Victor murder a man in his apartment and took video of the crime as it took place. Using this video, she hopes to blackmail Victor into performing a murder on her behalf. She wants revenge on the drunk driver who caused her accident and ruined her life.
That leads to my biggest problem with this movie (setting aside the fact that it's, in the end, a very silly film that asks its audience to take it completely seriously): the make-up that's supposed to indicate Beatrice's horrifying disfigurement. Someone involved with the production was clearly afraid to make their lead actress look at all ugly, which is clearly called for in the part. The half dozen or so red lines that mark the left side of her face just don't cut it. To be fair, she says that her current state is the result of extensive facial reconstruction surgery, but still, her doctors did a damn fine job: she's beautiful. In fact, she looks exactly like Noomi Rapace.
Normally, I'd let this slide. I understand that this is Hollywood, after all. What passes for "disfigured" in the movies is considered supermodel-gorgeous in the real world. But here the psychological effect Beatrice's injuries have had on her is of crucial importance to her motivation. Without the visual representation, she just comes across as a psychopath. The decision to keep Rapace pretty throws her entire storyline off kilter, and also adds some unintentional humor to scenes where the neighborhood children harass her, call her "monster" when she's out walking, and graffiti her door. It's difficult to sympathize with her thirst for revenge when the scars that supposedly cause her such torment appear as though they could be covered up with just a tiny bit a foundation. The script even bothers to make her character a beautician, for goodness sake.
Despite this major flaw, it's the relationship between Victor and Beatrice that works the best out of anything in "Dead Man Down". The two wounded souls who find themselves falling for one another despite the less-than-ideal circumstances under which they meet isn't exactly a novel idea, but the always reliable Farrell and Rapace completely sell it. Rapace has a magnetic screen presence and Farrell admirably chooses to underplay his part.
A film that focused on these two characters would have been much more interesting, but the script, by J.H. Wyman, is more interested in following the convoluted revenge plot between Victor and Alphonse, which goes bananas, complete with cryptic notes and jigsaw-puzzle clues. As over-the-top and ridiculous as this plot gets, the film is dead set on maintaining its dour, grim tone. The film looks great, however; director of photography Paul Cameron's cinematography is always lovely to look at, and the occasional nifty camera move adds some spice to the proceedings. Somewhere inside the film is a more interesting movie trying to break free, but sadly it never quite happens.