For a movie with two characters pursuing separate revenge stories, Niels Arden Oplev‘s Dead Man Down, manages to find a way to turn vendettas into plodding and tedious chores. The film lacks the courage of its convictions, and when it writes itself into a corner, it simply refuses to acknowledge the shortcomings of the script, and trudges on to the next bland scene. Oplev does seem to enjoy the cunning and violence his protagonist inflicts on the bad guys, but the revenge is so cliché that there’s no weight to any of the actions. Vengeance has never been so dull.
Victor (Colin Farrell) is a gang member working for mobster Alphonse (Terrence Howard), and Alphonse has a problem. Someone has been toying with the criminal by killing off his guys, dismantling his operation, and sending little pieces of a photo that will reveal the identity of the troublemaker. The gang is tasked with finding the threat. It turns out Victor is the traitor in their midst because his wife and kid were killed as a result of Alphonse’s dealings. Victor’s plan hits a snag when one of his revenge slaying is witnessed by Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a woman who lives in a building opposite of his. Instead of calling the cops, she blackmails Victor into committing a revenge killing on her behalf by knocking off the drunk driver who “disfigured” her face.
One of the film’s central failings is how it doesn’t have the resolve to truly ugly up Beatrice. She says she lost her job as a beautician, but later we see her working as a beautician so what has she really lost? She’s not ugly. She has movie scars. For those who don’t know, “movie scars” are scars that aren’t unattractive. They can represent emotional scars, but all that’s been hurt in this case is Beatrice’s vanity. The only way we could have been drawn into Beatrice’s pain is if it hurt to look at her every time she was on screen. But then we apparently couldn’t believe in her budding romance with Victor even though that romance is completely unnecessary.
A viewer could argue that the emotional relationship is about healing Victor’s broken heart, but it comes off as silly when we know Victor finding love isn’t going to stop him from the big, violent confrontation with Alphonse that the audience is craving. Dead Man Down doesn’t want to play with the revenge formula; it just wants to double up on it, and ironically comes away with nothing. Beatrice’s revenge feels hollow, but the film isn’t making the statement that revenge is pointless. It’s just certain kinds of revenge are pointless. If there was a revenge chart, Beatrice’s revenge would not qualify as necessary. She comes off as even more petty when put next to Victor’s elaborate plan to avenge his family’s death.
Sadly, there’s no urgency to either revenge plot. The story is drawn in too many directions, and none of them are particularly compelling. Oplev knows how to direct the film’s few action scenes, but he doesn’t have a knack for well-paced storytelling, or even realizing the storytelling has run into a corner. I won’t spoil at what point the plot hits a wall, but when it does, it simply ignores the present conflict so it can keep chugging along at its tiresome pace. Seemingly at random, we return to Beatrice and Victor having a “moment”, or Victor enacting another part of his plan, or Beatrice dealing with her emotional scars, or Victor’s pal Darcy (Dominic Cooper) working on finding Alphonse’s nemesis, and so on.
Revenge should be personal, but Dead Man Down has no personality. It wants to coast on the performances, but the actors are simply going through the motions. There’s nothing to challenge the viewer, and very little to garner our attention. We’re supposed to be getting two revenge stories for the price of one, but Dead Man Down is mostly worthless.