As Scandi directors go, Niels Arden Oplev couldn’t be hotter. After putting his stamp on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” the Dane has what appears to be his pick of projects. So why follow it up with such revenge-fantasy dreck as “Dead Man Down,” a derivative collection of brazen plot holes and latenight-cable cliches into which he drags “Dragon” star Noomi Rapace? Still, audiences love this junk. Boasting an incongruous international cast and an equally strange mix of backers (including World Wrestling Entertainment), this grim escapist folly aims to capture a fraction of those smitten with “Taken.”
Continuing his recent association with lousy material, Colin Farrell stars as a Hungarian immigrant whom the Albanian mob failed to whack. They shot his daughter, killed his wife and assumed they’d gotten him, too. But in a backstory conveniently left offscreen, he buried someone else’s corpse, established a new identity, infiltrated his murderers’ gang and began tormenting the crime bosses who ruined his life, inexplicably acquiring an Irish accent in the process.
That’s where the script by “The Mexican’s” J.H. Wyman begins, far removed from any recognizably human behavior in a high-concept realm where Victor (as Farrell’s character now calls himself) takes his revenge from within a stereotypically rendered criminal organization. His unnecessarily complicated scheme involves pitting the two men responsible for his pain — slick real-estate shark Alphonse (Terrence Howard) and Albanian hit man Ilir (James Bibiri) — against one another, while antagonizing them along the way with threatening clues.
Unfortunately, the pic isn’t clever enough to smooth over such a contrived setup, and simply ignores the countless questions Victor’s plan would raise. The idea is that Victor effectively died the day Alphonse and Ilir’s men killed his family, and now he lives only to even the score. But because the script fails to establish his wife and child as real characters, it’s virtually impossible to care whether his sadistic plan succeeds.
Instead, “Dead Man Down” hinges on Wyman and Oplev’s ability to bring this emotionally damaged character back to life, and that depends on a contrived love story involving Rapace as the Girl With the Mangled Face, a beguiling woman named Beatrice who occupies a neighboring apartment (shot at Gotham’s Seward Park Co-op). Mistaking overt symbolism for poetry, the pic presents Beatrice as a former beautician rendered monstrous by a brutal car accident — though it’s not bold enough to present her as such. Instead, Rapace appears behind a lattice of carefully designed facial scars that give her the same sexy edge she previously got from a tattoo and piercings.
Furious that the drunk driver who did this to her went virtually unpunished, Beatrice also craves revenge, and recognizes in Victor someone who can do the job. For the pic’s simple-minded morality to work, these two broken souls must mend, forgive and commit to redirecting their negative energy into creating a new life between them. But that would be no fun for the carnage-oriented WWE contingent, and so the film tries to have it both ways, offering a new beginning and closure via an explosive showdown in which trucks obliterate brick walls, three-story fireballs rip through sets and a lone hero takes on squads of Slavic henchmen.
For old-school action hounds, this stunt-heavy, practical effects-driven finale supplies ample reason to embrace “Dead Man Down,” and Oplev orchestrates the carnage effectively enough (although the opening shootout verges on incoherent). But whatever popular appeal this film (or “Dragon Tattoo,” for that matter) may provide, the helmer once again shows a disregard for what the censors call “redeeming social value,” plunging audiences into squalor and suffering in order to justify sick retribution on behalf of his protagonists.
The film takes an appalling pleasure in pain, delectating in both the anticipation and execution of Victor’s sadistic plans, as when he allows a sewer full of rats to swarm a hogtied Albanian thug. Though Oplev and d.p. Paul Cameron (who shot producer Neal Moritz’s “Total Recall” remake) capture such depravity with precisely the desired level of grit, the pic displays a staggering lack of attention to simple details.
Among “Dead Man Down’s” many dead ends, Victor sustains a near-fatal bullet wound that is never mentioned again (like his shattered passenger window, it evidently self-repairs overnight); Alphonse springs an elaborate trap only to discover nothing; and Armand Assante makes an inexplicable cameo as a syndicate capo. Meanwhile, Victor goes out of his way to return a Tupperware container provided by Beatrice’s mother (Isabelle Huppert). Evidently, sometimes continuity does matter.