Sony // 2013 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 19th, 2013
Blood demands blood.
I don't envy Niels Arden Oplev. Though he's had a fairly long career outside America, he came to most viewers' attention when he helmed the first adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for Swedish screens. Being involved in such a well-loved and high-profile project must have been both rewarding and daunting. It also seemed to have given Oplev entry into the American market, reuniting him with Noomi Rapace. Though he proves his mettle as a visually interesting filmmaker, Dead Man Down also proves that he needs a solid script to thrive, something this flick doesn't offer.
Victor's (Colin Farrell, London Boulevard) family was murdered by gangster Alphonse (Terrence Howard, Iron Man), and to gain revenge he insinuates himself into Alphonse's inner circle. Meanwhile, Victor's neighbor (Noomi Rapace, Prometheus) was disfigured by a drunk driver, and she hopes to blackmail Victor into killing the driver. Nothing quite goes as planned for either of them.
One of the things that made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo franchise so popular was not the mysteries that each book was ostensibly about. No, it was the fact that the books were about people who weren't cookie-cutter characters going about the typical detective motions. Lisbeth Salander in particular is a character who isn't perfect but who rises above the horrors of her life to achieve certain goals. Her companion Kalle Blomkvist is similarly complex, with his broken marriage, open relationship, and devil-may-care attitude towards his personal and professional safety. Putting them together was Larsson's genius, as we watch them cling to one another as unlikely companions, and their relationship drives more of the trilogy than any of the murders.
Despite the original Lisbeth Salander being directed by Niels Arden Oplev who brought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to life in Sweden, Dead Man Down completely ignores this lesson, to its detriment. It's got the right ingredients to start with. Colin Ferrell's Victor is haunted by the murder of his family and wants revenge. Noomi Rapace's Beatrice similarly wants revenge against a drunk driver who disfigured her. All that's well and good, and if the film had spent most of its two-hour running time investigating their relationship and unlikely alliance, Dead Man Down would likely have been a better film. Instead, the flick goes in for "thriller" clichés and tired action sequences.
Part of the problem is that our characters are too over-determined. Obviously having your family murdered or your body disfigured is a good reason to want revenge, but rather than dwelling on the specifics of what that might do to people, the film uses these events as an excuse to give us a quick emotional shorthand to underscore the actions of revenge. Again, it could work if Dead Man Down cared one iota for what makes these characters tick, for the specifics of their lives which put them in the path of a gangster. The film instead glazes over the specifics in favor of using tragedy as an excuse.
The film is also dark, needlessly so. The film is so dark, in fact, that I checked it on multiple monitors to make sure something wasn't wrong with my setup. Nope, Dead Man Down apparently happens in a part of town where no one pays the electric bill. I'm not against dark films in general, but the look of the film feels much like the characterization: perfunctory. Bad things happen, and since the dark is also bad, the movie can't allow any light in. It feels like a cheat rather than an integral part of the creation of a world. The darkness isn't helped by the Dead Man Down (Blu-ray) transfer, which can't balance the film's desire for darkness with the need to have detail in the shadows. So, that means much of the image is bathed in shadow that remains hazy.
Other than the mediocre black levels, this 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer
is good. Detail is pretty spot-on, especially in close-ups, and color saturation
is muted but feels appropriate. No compression artefacts or digital manipulation
show up to mar the image either. The DTS-HD 5.1 surround track is even better.
Dialogue is clear and well-balanced with the frequent action elements like
gunshots. The film's score is also well-represented with good dynamic range. The
soundstage is appropriately immersive as well.
We get three featurettes to kick off the extras, one that's a general overview and one-apiece on the cinematography and fights. A DVD and an Ultraviolet Digital Copy are also available.
Perhaps the biggest fault of Dead Man Down is failing to live up to its potential. With stars like Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace directed by Niels Arden Oplev, viewers should be able to expect an above-average thriller. Instead, what we get is pretty thoroughly average. That means those with lowered expectations can expect to find some good stuff going on in the film.
The film doesn't quite know what to do with its stars, but that doesn't mean Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace don't rise to the challenge of their characters. The chemistry between the two is undeniable and their performances are fun to watch. Terrence Howard plays a variation on the too-slick criminal but he's good at it, making his gangster more watchable than he should be.
Similarly, Niels Arden Oplev knows how to move a camera. Though I'm not a fan of his decision to paint the film in midnight black, the film does have a slick, moody look to it that's easy to admire. It's not visually groundbreaking, but the look of the film also doesn't feel perfunctory either.
As an average thriller, Dead Man Down fits the genre bill. It's got well-motivated revenge and some decent action set pieces. Sadly, with all the talent involved it could have been so much more, and that shadow casts a pall over the film. There's also a literal shadow over the film as much of the cinematography is bathed in darkness, the kind of darkness that isn't well represented on Dead Man Down (Blu-ray). With that said, the rest of the disc is solid and worth a rental for fans of the actors involved.
Perhaps the dead man should stay down, but this flick is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, Descriptive)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Copy
* Ultraviolet Download