Oddly enough, one of the strikes against this uneven, thuggish, gun-toting action-and-revenge yarn in N.Y.C. is the good reputation of its director and reminders of his finer past work. Namely, we’re talking about Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s chilling and riveting screen adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so impressive that the American version almost directly imitated it — an egregious case of cinematic larceny and flattery through shameless imitation.
With Dead Man Down, Oplev has naturally answered the call of Hollywood with this, his first American film, but the pieces and paces don’t all fit together. To boot, reminders of what’s missing come in the form of a similarly tangled web of evil in the plot department. There’s also the presence of The Girl herself; the hardened beauty Noomi Rapace appears here as The Girl with the Car-Crash-Disfigured Face, with a fierce longing for revenge. Fates collide in voyeuristic gazes across high-rise apartment buildings, in a winking Rear Window reference, and she finds a fellow retribution-hungry partner in laconic handsome man Colin Farrell. His stubbly, unflappable face, a Farrell specialty, fills the frame with a sense of concealed rage and a will to exact some badass revenge by the final reel.
It’s only a minor plot-spoiler sin to mention that, even before the opening credits, we see a Popsicle corpse in a freezer and a nasty gunfight in a drug den. Oplev seems to be warning and promising us with this teaser: “Welcome to movie-time crimeville, American style.” What transpires between the stage-setting nastiness of the opening and the wannabe whiz-bang violence-orgy climax is a plot involving a ruthless syndicate operation with criminal real estate operations in N.Y.C., led by a grimly cool ringleader played by Terrence Howard and headed for a fall, but slowly.
Late in the film’s neo-noirish game, Oplev sneaks in a couple of scenes surprisingly flecked with self-effacing comic relief, even if tiny bursts of it, something the film could have used more of. Dragon Tattoo was no laughing matter, on an epic scale. Dead Man Down needs to lighten up and find its focus. It’s an American thing.