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'Dead Man Down' review: Colin Farrell leads a ludicrous thriller

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Released on Friday, May 3 2013

Director: Niels Arden Oplev; Screenwriter JH Wyman; Starring: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard; Running time: 117 mins; Certificate: 15


Just when you were thinking the north of Europe could do no wrong in the crime drama stakes, along comes Dead Man Down. Niels Arden Oplev's first film since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) doesn't undo the good work of The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge et al, but it's without question a disappointment given that it's also Oplev's reunion with breakout Tattoo star Noomi Rapace. Despite its pedigree, this is a slapdash and intermittently ludicrous thriller.

Following last year's Total Recall, Colin Farrell takes another punt at recovering his lapsed action hero image in the role of Victor, a strong-but-silent henchman type with a tortured past. He's the right-hand man to a nasty New York crime lord Alphonse Hoyt (Terence Howard), whose ranks he has infiltrated with the ultimate aim of avenging his wife and daughter's deaths. After exchanging wistful glimpses across balconies, he makes a date with his neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), who's naturally got a tortured past and a hidden agenda of her own.

After a hit-and-run, Beatrice is left with facial scars that are disfiguring only in the most Hollywood-friendly sense, but make it literally painful for her to smile. She's out for revenge on the driver who hit her, and blackmails Victor into carrying out the hit by threatening to reveal her videotaped evidence of him committing a murder. The scene in which this plot point is revealed, Rapace turning on a dime from demure to near-demonic levels of spitting crazy, gives you an early indication of just how laughably weird the film's emotional transactions will become.

Rapace's remarkable charisma in the Dragon Tattoo series has never quite been replicated in English-language work, and despite being back with Oplev she's never been farther from it than here. But the problem is at script level: the plot demands that Beatrice be one kind of character, but it's not the character J.H. Wyman has written, nor the one Rapace is playing. In order to set the blackmail plot in motion, she has to be a vengeful and manipulative femme fatale, but she's otherwise drawn as sweet and vulnerable and damaged, and the two sides never add up. She's most interesting in scenes with her overbearing mother (Isabelle Huppert); by the halfway mark you'll be longing to watch an entire film of Rapace and Huppert discussing colours of Tupperware, rather than another second of dead-eyed action.

You can imagine a version of Victor that works; you can even imagine a version that's magnetic, if you can mentally cast Ryan Gosling or Michael Fassbender in Farrell's place. The character's no more laconic or under-developed than, say, Gosling's Driver, but a certain kind of actor can hint at just how much is going on behind the exterior, where with Farrell it's far too easy to believe there's not much of anything going on. He does at least get one of the film's best unintentional laugh lines, with the revelation that he's "Hungarian... but worked hard to get rid of the accent".

By the time Dead Man Down descends into ultra-violence, you'll be long past caring; the cliché-ridden script and clumsily handled plot become so wearing that even Rapace's intermittent strong moments don't have the impact they should. Even the sound is heavy-handed; a relentless blend of discordant noise cues which vie to build tension but ultimately make it impossible for any one moment of shock or awe to stand out. It's a film that wants desperately to be hardboiled, but ends up half-baked at best.

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