Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dead Man Down

New York Noir, Sans Tattoos And Tumult

Colin Farrell as Victor in Niels Arden Oplev's drama "Dead Man Down".  FilmDistrict

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Niels Arden Oplev brings his "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" cine aura to New York City -- complete with Noomi Rapace -- to "Dead Man Down", a moody, cloudy noir drama that is all atmosphere and optics but no soul.  This result is something that happens to many film directors from overseas, whom, having done strong work in their native lands become stifled in the U.S. when making films for Hollywood.

Still, "Dead Man Down", written by J.H. Wyman, is mostly the fault of Mr. Wyman (as "Stoker" was Wentworth Miller's), with its story of Victor (Colin Farrell), a widower and Hungarian right-hand man to Alphonse (Terrence Howard), a New York City crime gangster.  Victor lost his wife and daughter to the violence of Alphonse's coalition of hit men years before.  More a dead man walking than down, Victor seeks revenge against Alphonse, fueled by Beatrice (Ms. Rapace), a lonely neighbor and beautician seeking vengeance for her facial disfigurement.  Mr. Oplev raises the volume on this secondary story slowly but surely, yet there's little onscreen connectivity between Victor and Beatrice's stories, despite any emotional and physical connection the characters have. 

One of the problems with "Dead Man Down" is that its audience is miles ahead of its characters, even as some of them hint that they know Victor is the fly in their ointment.  Victor's long-time close friend Darcy (Dominic Cooper) is part of Alphonse's crew, and he's dogged in uncovering who is killing Alphonse's henchmen.  "Dead Man Down" has a seductive gloom and melancholy, with lots of observational shots of New York City apartment buildings and long distance surveillance of isolated characters.  Mr. Oplev's effectiveness in his English language debut is limited to stylistic flourishes and good camerawork by cinematographer Paul Cameron.  (Beatrice's white dress gets tarnished within seconds of wear by a bullying horde.)  That's as far as the film travels.  Much else, including the subplot regarding Beatrice and her assailant, falls by the wayside.

"Dead Man Down" is about language and interpretation.  At least four languages, Hungarian, English, Spanish and French are spoken, giving New York the cosmopolitan diversity it lacks in many films.  Members of a British-Jamaican crime syndicate also appear, amidst chaos.  The film's fleeting comic relief is devoted to misunderstandings between Beatrice, her hearing-challenged French mother (Isabelle Huppert), and Victor.  The light humor prevents Mr. Oprev's film from being a complete abomination.  Mr. Oprev and his distracted film deserved a better fate.  The ingredients are there but the cooking isn't.

In Mr. Oprev's original "Dragon Tattoo", the script based on Stieg Larsson's book had deep emotional grounding, focus and a rooting interest in Ms. Rapace.  Here, Ms. Rapace's Beatrice is a style chess piece for whom Victor is a proxy, not someone who stands independently and defiantly on her own two feet.  Victor himself is more of a riddle player (as is the film), a mystery wrapped in an enigma.  He's a grieving man we're supposed to have compassion for but his needless violent actions along the way remove any connection to him. 

To a large degree all the actors are relegated by the violence throughout "Dead Man Down", which needed more investment in the imagination department.  Mr. Hyman assembles a grand stage but it is muddled, until the climax becomes resolutely clear.  Even then however, I was left wondering: was this worth the time?  Too many things are going on, and while that is good in some films, when each of those things feels ancillary rather than relevant or material I feel the writer padding a film's running time.  Maybe the editors are as much to blame, as "Dead Man Down" needed more shape and definition.

That said, Mr. Oprev's film has the best ensemble cast any film will boast all year.  The actors do well -- F. Murray Abraham, Armand Assante, Ms. Huppert, Ms. Rapace, Mr. Farrell, Mr. Howard and Mr. Cooper -- but feature as players in their own separate films instead of collectively impacting the story on a concrete level.  Throughout it all I could only think of Ms. Huppert: so good as always, even in bad, forgettable films like this.

Also with: Luis Da Silva Jr., Declan Mulvey, Stephen Hill, Jennifer Mudge.

"Dead Man Down", which opened earlier this month across the U.S. and Canada, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence, language throughout and a scene of sexuality.  The film's running time is one hour and 54 minutes.

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