May 7, 2013

Dead Man Down [15]

Dir: Niels Arden Oplev
Okay, so Dead Man Down never looked that promising. Director Niels Arden Oplev may have helmed the original version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but whatever you thought about that version (and I like it, as a whole, much better than the remake) the most notable thing about it was never the visuals. Leaving a rather unexciting directorial choice aside, the WWE logo in front of the film and the spectacularly generic revenge thriller trailer hardly inspired anything approaching confidence. So why did I find myself sitting down for a screening?

I know film is seen largely as a director’s medium but I’m often, first and foremost, a fan of actors and Dead Man Down has a fantastic cast. Colin Farrell is hit and miss, but I often find him an engaging presence, and the supporting cast surrounding him here is even better. Oplev’s Dragon Tattoo star Noomi Rapace appears as a scarred and traumatised young woman who enlists Farrell to help her get revenge. Terrence Howard, whose initially promising career seems have sunk quite impressively, plays the leader of Farrell’s gang. F. Murray Abraham plays Farrell’s uncle, Dominic Cooper (who, like Farrell, I find hit and miss, but who can outshine his material) is a gangster friend whose newborn Farrell is godfather to and Isabelle Huppert – yes, really – puts in a brief turn as Rapace’ mother.

The story basically entwines a pair of revenge stories with a romantic storyline between Farrell and Rapace. There are a couple of minor twists, particularly regarding how Rapace first approaches Farrell, but otherwise it’s very much business as usual as the gang Farrell is in tries to work out who has been killing them and why and Farrell prepares to kill the driver of the car that hit Rapace, leaving her scarred.

Because the film feels so by the numbers none of it rings true. Farrell is supposed to be distant and emotionally broken, but it’s never borne out in script or performance. Rapace does a little bit more with her own character’s baggage, but there’s little for her to work with either in terms of detail (for all the time the film spends on character they hardly advance beyond the first thing we learn about them) or physicality. The physicality of the role is a real problem; Rapace is called ‘The Monster’ by neighborhood kids, but all she has in terms of marks are some reddish scars around one eye and on her neck, yes they’re there, but they’re very clearly positioned to make sure that she looks as much like Noomi Rapace as possible. Look at her in the poster to the right. HIDEOUS, isn’t she? She’s NOT a monster, she’s not even mildly unattractive, and that, along with the thin writing, undermines her apparently desperate need for vengeance.

The romantic storyline doesn’t really work for me. For a long time you suspect that, for decent character based reasons, the film won’t take that route, but of course cliche must be served and it does. It’s not the fault of Farrell and Rapace, who do at least exhibit some chemistry, but because of the way the story has proceeded to this point the romance feels incredibly false and forced, which at least puts it in the same club as every other plot point, I suppose.

The cast all seem to be trying (with one notable exception), but they are just criminally wasted. Howard has as generic a mid-level mobster part as I’ve ever seen, and while tries to inject some menace with his quiet readings it’s just not happening. Dominic Cooper is okay, and to his credit he disappears in the role well enough I couldn’t quite put my finger on who was playing Darcy until I checked IMDB, but again, it’s just such a one note role and plays out – just like everything else here – exactly as you’d expect. The one person who really doesn’t seem to put forward much effort is Isabelle Huppert. Huppert may be the greatest actress of her generation, but you’d never know it from this. Again, the script is little help, giving her little to do but bake cookies, but the total lack of acknowledgement in her performance that her character is supposed to be deaf and the barely masked disdain she treats the film with suggests that this is the most naked mortgage payment role since Liam Neeson stood around and said things at a camera in Battleship.

Oplev’s direction is similarly phoned in. His action scenes make little sense (spatial awareness, what’s that?) and while the film never looks notably bad the visuals steadfastly stick to that same washed out look that every movie that aspires to be ‘gritty’ is required to adopt now. It’s a pity, because if the editing made a little more sense (and, to be fair, if the screenplay were less hilariously hackneyed) the mid-movie chase could easily have been quite thrilling.

A solid effort on the part of (most of) its cast just about rescues Dead Man Down from the lowest of low grades, but make no mistake, this is as hackneyed, as generic and as uninspiring as its title. Don’t be fooled by the considerably better than expected cast list.

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