Noomi Rapace, left, and Colin Farrell in a scene from "Dead Man Down." (John Baer / Film District )
Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace star as two damaged souls in "Dead Man Down," a moody twist of hyper-violent vengeance and heartache where death is hand-delivered, mercy is hard to come by and love is never easy.
The slow-simmering potboiler is the first American film for Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, who created such a cold, calculating thrill, with Rapace as his muse, in the 2009 Swedish version of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." An international sensation, it inspired the English-language take starring Rooney Mara a few years later, put Rapace on everyone's radar and opened Hollywood's door for Oplev.
Though you may wish Oplev had taken Door No. 2 — "Dead Man Down" won't be another career-definer for either director or actress — the filmmaker does have a better understanding of what to do with Rapace. Neither the silliness of "Sherlock Homes: Game of Shadows" nor the sci-fi of "Prometheus," her first forays into U.S. box-office territory, quite got at Rapace's strengths. Simply put, the actress works well in darkness, and there is darkness everywhere here.
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Maybe it's all those long, cold, sunless winters growing up in Denmark that shape the director's sensibility, or that screenwriter J.H. Wyman has been spending his recent years running the outer limits of Fox's "Fringe," but "Dead Man Down" is truly a game of shadows.
Set in New York City's hard-boiled criminal underworld, the film opens with Darcy (Dominic Cooper) cradling his baby and talking to his best friend Victor (Farrell) about the need for human connections. Frankly, neither seems the tender type. Especially Victor, a killing specialist whose sharpshooting keeps gang leader Alphonse (Terrence Howard) alive and makes clear right away what sort of violence we're in for — excessive, stylish, noir-ish.
Director of photography Paul Cameron, whose work includes the super-polished crime gem of Michael Mann's "Collateral," is a perfect fit for the aggressive, athletic carnage Oplev has in mind. By painting the city in browns and grays, the filmmakers heighten the menace.
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What's troubling Alphonse is not just that someone is picking off his men — a dead friend in a freezer kicks off the first killing spree — it's the way the deaths are designed to mess with his mind. With each body there are new clues, usually a cryptic note and a strategically placed sliver of a photo that Alphonse is slowly piecing together.
How does Rapace figure into all this? She's Beatrice, whose high-rise balcony faces Victor's. Beatrice is a damaged beauty, half of her face a latticework of nasty scars — a constant reminder of the drunk driver responsible. And if the aim of all those angry wounds was to remind us of how "scarred" she is, less would have sufficed.
After a lot of smoking and eyeing each other, a slow dance begins as one piece after another falls into place. Victor is drawn to Beatrice and not just because she's blackmailing him. The ambitious Darcy gets closer to figuring things out as wiseguys turn up dead and Alphonse's mood turns blacker. Victor gets edgier about all the blood on his hands, with Farrell working those wounded looks overtime.
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No one has given Farrell a chance to be this dramatic in a while, not that I'm complaining. The actor was wonderfully ironic in the lethal Hollywood riff of "Seven Psychopaths" last year, and his guilt-ridden hit man in 2008's "In Bruges" still stands as some of his best work. But it would be grand to see him sink his teeth into a really terrific drama; there's just not enough in "Dead Man Down" for him to chew on. Still, he and Rapace are good together — keeping things on a low burn and doing their part to try to keep you invested in what is going to happen next.
That is no small task because both the screenwriter and the director want to keep us guessing until the very last blast — and it is a big one. But with so many twists, the movie feels like it's trying too hard. Some moments are cleverly constructed; and others seem as if the filmmakers have left themselves no plausible escape. Without giving away the specifics, I'd just suggest that a functioning laptop in a walk-in closet is truly something you don't run across every day. …