deadmandown_review

They are evenly matched eyebrow thespians.

Dead Man Down seems like a pretty unassuming movie. It lands without any fanfare except maybe to people who watched the original The Girl Who Etc trilogy. I didn’t see them but I am familiar with the Korean revenge movie subgenre that I heard this is supposed to evoke. Like them, Dead Man Down skews more toward drama than action with a bit of weirdness in the form of implausible plot devices or contrivances that fuel a stylized sensibility. That said, Dead Man Down is not as stylized as it easily could have been. In general, it feels exceptionally down to Earth and while it’s gritty, it does not wear this like flash. This is the European approach to action-dramas and often this feels like a Luc Besson film or a distant cousin to 2011’s The American. That is, it’s more focused on character development and emotional intimacy than it is on the visceral aspects of a revenge film. It also mixes in earnest romance and some of the triumphant 80’s action movie optimism.

In some ways, it feels like it may have a bit of an identity crisis, but I think the mix of elements is strong alchemy, producing a great little film that is more than the sum of its parts.dead-man-down04

One of a series of unexpected and gorgeously composed shots early in the film.

The director, Neils Arden Oplev, can shoot the ever-loving fuck out of a movie. I may have to get around to seeing his other stuff after this. One of the first things you’ll notice about Dead Man Down is that it’s an exceedingly good looking film. I don’t usually comment too much on this sort of thing, but it’s necessary this time. Color balance is usually sacrificed in movies to achieve a sort of filtered, gritty look. Colors and hues are used to evoke emotional or metatextual resonance. Think about the green and blue tones used in The Matrix trilogy or the washed out greys and browns of contemporary war movies or even bleak visions of apocalypse such as The Road. Unlike these types of movies, Dead Man Down uses color to represent the beauty between the darker moments. The dark places are all touched by notes of color, always presenting a subtle visual cue that this movie’s ultimate theme is hope.

Aside from that, Dead Man Down has a handful of action sequences that are remarkable if only for how competently they are framed and shot. The climactic sequence goes fairly broad, hence the 80’s action movie lemon-twist I ascribe to the film as a whole, but it too features the attention to brevity and clarity used all throughout the film. You always know what’s going on, where things are, etc. This is not a stylistic action movie, so there aren’t really bits that go so big you say “whoa”. It’s not Inception or even a Michael Mann film. But if you have a taste for action and you know the conventions, you will find little surprises. A good example would be the vent part from the opening shoot-out. Little stuff like that goes a long way in a movie that is heavy on drama and light on action but may have been sold the other way around.

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Alphonse and his hip gang.

The movie is straightforward and you have all the major pieces of the plot very early in. This is okay, though, because the movie is actually trying to subvert its own vengeance themes. The theme of this movie is not “an eye for an eye” but rather whether it’s better to move on than to seek revenge.

Victor (Colin Farrel) is a low-level soldier in a crew run by Alphonse (Terence Howard) in New York City. Their primary racket seems to be the owning and operation of buildings used for illicit purposes. Some service is given to the idea of a grander syndicate of crime that Alphonse is under, with Armand Assante showing up for a brief cameo that mostly shows off how well he’s preserving. Mainly, though, Alphonse’s group of sharply dressed, Brooklyn Hipster thugs are the main ingredient.

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Neither of them looks much like a gangster but hey, it’s 2013. Gangsters are trendy too.

Along with Victor there’s Darcy (Dominic Cooper). They are friends with Victor posing as the reticent tough guy who keeps his own counsel and Darcy as the talkative loser with ambitions and too much to lose. Their friendship could have been the focus of the movie but we’ve seen that kind of thing before, principally in undercover cop movies. Instead of being a focal point, this friendship is one of several layers that help the movie earn its optimistic, unlikely ending.

Victor has a fairly tragic backstory that is also layered more than you might expect. It isn’t as simple as “bad guys killed his family”. Instead, it’s filled with details that may not be necessary to the movie’s overall function but add a lot of shading and texture that help Dead Man Down transcend its simple, familiar premise and straightforward plot. The most crucial part of his personality, something usually not explored in these types of movies, is a basic reluctance to kill. He is not conscienceless and you can see, thanks to Farrel, the cost of every person he kills on his road to revenge. This matters not only because it’s completely unusual (revenge heroes usually have no qualms) but because it feeds back into the subversion of theme in this film. Victor’s compassion and essential humanity are at odds with his goals, making his plan and associated tasks that much more difficult. It isn’t just logistics, then, but a moral and psychological price that the film does not wave away.

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She kind of looks like Femshep.

Because this is basically a story about two broken people, the film has another main character. Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) was a beautician until she was disfigured by a drunk driver. She lives across from Victor, their apartments visible to each other. They’ve been noticing each other for a while it seems, until Beatrice finally decides she wants to meet Victor. In the film’s only real twist, and an effective one, it turns out that she knows Victor is some kind of killer and she wants to use that to get revenge on the man who fucked her face up. As they get to know each other, and she learns more about Victor and his plans, it isn’t just their mutual passion for revenge that keeps them in each other’s orbit. Far from it, actually.

Beatrice’s situation doesn’t always work well. The scenes with her mom are nice, and there’s an excellent understated chemistry between Rapace and Farrel that is played to the hilt in yearning looks, moments of silence, and intense outbursts of emotion between them. That said, I don’t believe for a second that neighborhood kids would treat Beatrice the way they do in the film. If this is a remake of a Korean movie, which I heard but haven’t confirmed, then this feels like a transplant from that. In this movie, kids call her “monster” and throw rocks at her. Her facial scarring isn’t even that bad, of course, so it just doesn’t work well. Fortunately, Rapace brings a complex mix of vulnerability, inner strength, and earnestness to the character and she sells every scene. Beatrice and Victor are both fully dimensional characters, a staple of this take on the revenge/action formula, but the actors really work it when they’re sharing scenes.

The most important thing is whether you want them to end up together, whether you buy their attempts to save each other. If you do, then the movie has worked and the ending will be immensely satisfying. I think the movie earns everything in it, except for those fucking mean kids, but I didn’t walk into it with specific expectations about where it was going or what it was trying to do. I think a degree of openness is required for Dead Man Down to get a fair shake from its audience.

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This movie has a bit of a fetish for machine pistols.

One of the issues with evoking the Korean revenge movie subgenre is that those tend to be operatic, colossally fucked up movies with labyrinthine plots, didactic morals, and grandiose themes. Not to mention the blood and spatter that underwrite the immediacy and brutality of their violence. Dead Man Down is far more understated, eschewing extreme violence (though it has its fair share) and all the melodrama and theatrics of the movies that supposedly inspired it.

Again, one should look to stuff like The American or Leon: The Professional for cinematic cousins to Dead Man Down.

Now that I’ve qualified the violent content of the film, I can talk about that goddamn ending.

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Another machine pistol!

We’re sort of kept at arm’s length from Victor’s plan. We understand that it’s intricate, long-term, and incredibly precise. However, this would be a different type of movie altogether if it all worked the way it was supposed to. In its highest moment of contrivance, the plot and theme of the movie intersect with Victor and Beatrice’s saga getting fully in the way of his plan, which is essentially to get himself killed in the name of revenge. Beatrice, however, fucks him over to save him and gets herself captured in the process. Victor’s compassion has led to his getting found out and suddenly it seems like there’s no way out of the heavily stacked situation he’s in. All his enemies are set against him, his best friend is with them, and the person who represents his salvation is being held by them at gunpoint. He’s fucked, in other words. All he has is his truck and some plastic explosives.

If this were a Stallone movie circa-1987 that would be all he needs. In this movie, you don’t count on that kind of balls-out antics. But Oplev knows what he’s doing and goes for exactly that kind of climax. Victor storms Alphonse’s house and kills pretty much everyone inside, except the best friend and love interest. He and Darcy agree not to shoot each other, earned utterly by the chemistry between Cooper and Farrel and the role their contexts play in their outcome. He and Beatrice ride off into the sunset on the L-train.

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It’s not a horse or a Mercedes but hey, fuck it. New York.

It’s actually kind of a perfect ending but not the kind of thing you’re led to expect not only by the usual bleakness and sacrifice or the severity of the deck stacked against Victor by the end. I think it’s refreshing and awesome that the movie bucks those expectations and it is also thematically consistent. If Victor died, revenge would be the most important thing and since he’s basically a good guy who deserves a better life, he needs to live. It’s important also that he doesn’t strike the final blow against either Alphonse or the lead Albanian hitman who proxied him. They kill each other instead, closing the loop of Victor’s past once and for all.

This kind of attention to detail is crucial in most movies, and rarely is it present. It’s how you take a simple and familiar formula and turn it into something actually worth watching. It’s also how you explain to people that this is a movie that shows its work, that was made with love and intelligence and respect for you, the viewer.

I think that deserves appreciation.

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