Dead Man Down. (2013). MPAA: R (for violence, language throughout, and a scene of sexuality). Starring: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Terrance Howard, and Dominic Cooper. Written by J.H. Wyman. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev.
“Revenge is coming.” So reads the tagline for Dead Man Down. I first saw the trailer for this movie while sitting in a theater with a few friends recently and chuckled. The trailer, while not necessarily giving much away about the plot, just seemed to make the film itself look like it would be a convoluted thriller with a lot of cool action scenes. This is why I have learned to always keep an open mind and not take trailers too seriously because Dead Man Down is not only the exact opposite of what I expected it to be, but it is actually one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.
When I looked at the tomato-meter for this movie on the movie review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes, I was absolutely shocked to see it hovering in the 30% range, and if you’re unfamiliar with the site, that just means that only 30% of the critics that reviewed the film gave it a positive, or “fresh,” rating. I am appalled. Now I don’t always agree with the tomato-meter, but this is one of the most shocking percentages I’ve seen in a while. This movie deserves much more praise than it is getting, and I am going to delve a little deep in this review, without spoiling anything.
The spoiler-free plot of Dead Man Down goes a little something like this: a woman sees her neighbor kill someone, then makes him an offer that if he kills the man that is responsible for the disfigurement of her face, she won’t tell the authorities what she saw. It’s definitely a revenge movie, but it is so much more than that. Characters have pasts, and because of them we care about their futures. The performances are good. The writing is very good. The camerawork and direction are top rate. It’s just all around surprises.
Colin Farrell is one of my favorite actors. I love the guy. Phone Booth is probably the only Joel Schumacher movie I like, and I think its Farrell’s performance that made that film good. Last year’s Seven Psychopaths was great, and even though Farrell did have a knock out cast to help him along, he probably could’ve carried it. Heck, even last year’s Total Recall was better than it should’ve been, and I don’t think it would have been as good without Farrell there. So, how is he here? Fantastic. This may even be the best I’ve seen him since Phone Booth in 2004. Granted, I haven’t seen every movie he’s been in, but just take my word, his performance is great. Supporting him is Noomi Rapace, who took a leading role in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus last year, and has played the role of Lisbeth Salandar in the original Swedish adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2009, which was directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the director of this film, who I will address in a second. As for Rapace, I thought she was good. I don’t know exactly what it is about her, but there are certain elements to her that I like and some that I don’t like. I am very mixed on my opinion of her and whether I like her or not, but I feel like she did a pretty good job as far as her broken character goes. Also in the supporting cast is Terrance Howard, who plays the leader of an organization Farrell’s character is involved in. Howard is, as usual, very good, even though his character, and the rest of his group, are about as stupid as they come, which is the fault of the screenwriter, who I will address momentarily. Howard still manages to convince the audience of his seriousness as the film progresses, which is something I really liked about this movie as a whole; when the script is weak, the actors find flavor and liven up the screen. The rest of the supporting cast is good, but there is one man I want to mention and that is Dominic Cooper, who plays a very good role. His character was written very well, and his performance drove much of this movie, despite a small amount of screen time. I loved him.
I want to go ahead and address the script for this movie before I move on to the direction. J.H. Wyman wrote the script for Dead Man Down, and this guy has some talent with the pen. Not that the dialogue is necessarily legendary, but I’m talking about the twists and turns within the already interesting story. As soon as this film started, it felt like they accidentally turned the movie on halfway in, which happens sometimes. The beginning left me wondering, “What the heck is happening?” And that does happen many other times throughout this film, where something completely random happens and it will leave you scratching your head, until a few minutes later when it is explained, and it is all very well done and brilliantly conceived. I found myself saying audibly, “Very nice” after one of these moments. Also, when I watched the trailer, I thought it made it out to look like it would be an action packed thriller. It’s actually, as I mentioned earlier, the exact opposite. Yes there is some action, mostly in the final act, but for the majority of its near two hour running time, this movie is dialogue driven. If you saw the movie Killing Them Softly last year, which I really liked, then you have an idea of what this film is like in terms of action compared to dialogue. Kudos to Wyman on the script.
Now we can discuss the direction, and oh my word, how good it is. I have only seen David Fincher’s American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which had great cinematography by the way, but because of my lack of seeing the Swedish version, I really didn’t know what to expect from director Niels Arden Oplev. If the direction and camerawork are anything like they are in Dead Man Down, I plan on watching it as soon as I can because those two factors are, in my opinion, the best aspects of this entire movie. Oplev certainly knew what he was doing in making this movie, because even he had to know this is a revenge flick. Revenge flicks are revenge flicks. This story could’ve easily been sold to some company that decided to have some first time director film it with Stallone or Schwarzenegger, but instead, Oplev decided to take his time in getting a good cast, framing the film, and placing the actors where he wanted, and it all works out successfully. As for the cinematography, it’s marvelous. The tilts of the camera and the backgrounds behind characters look beautiful with the lighting, and there a few jaw dropping camera shots that left me saying, “Holy crap.” One of which involves the camera descending from above a staircase. That may not sound like much, but just watch out for that one, because you’ll lose yourself in it. It’s dazzling.
FINAL VERDICT: Dead Man Down is probably the biggest surprise of the year for me so far. It’s great to see Colin Farrell give his best performance in years and the supporting cast does a good job at backing him up. The script provides the majority of the surprises though as it fills its characters with pasts and personalities that we grow to care about and delivers some very unexpected twists that allow the story to ascend above the standard action thriller. This is a dialogue driven film that has some of the best camerawork and cinematography I’ve seen all year, and it is the best surprise I’ve seen in 2013. (B+)