"Dead Man Down" is an American action thriller with almost no action -- except in the over-the-top climax -- and fewer thrills than the genre usually calls for. What it does have is a pair of great lead characters and two hours of careful character development. That makes this quite interesting, in an odd way, and as much of a drama as it is a thriller.
This should not have been a surprise. The director is the Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev. He did the first instalment in "The Dragon Tattoo" Trilogy, the Swedish TV and movie series that is absolutely brilliant when you see the original "extended" versions. Meanwhile, the lead actress in Dead Man Down is Sweden's Noomi Rapace, the girl with those dragon tattoos. She also had a yearning for revenge against the cabal of perverts who so abused her. That element of The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy is worth remembering when you watch "Dead Man Down".
In the new movie, Rapace plays a young beautician with a severely scarred face and a legacy of emotional trauma. Lowlife neighbourhood bullies yell, "Monster!" as she passes. She suffered the lacerations in a car accident. The drunk driver who hit her escaped proper legal punishment. The system failed her. Rapace once again seeks illegal retribution.
In a stroke of casting genius, Oplev pairs Rapace with Colin Farrell, the mercurial Irish actor who brings such soulful sadness to his best roles. Farrell plays a Hungarian-American. His status as an outsider in the polyglot, multi-national social fabric of New York City is crucial to how Dead Man Down plays out. National loyalty is critical to survival in the Big Apple's underworld. While most of the movie is in English, some scenes are played in French, Albanian, Spanish and Hungarian (with subtitles).
Farrell's tough guy is teamed with Dominic Cooper. They are buddy-thugs in a New York gang run by a dapper mobster (Terrence Howard). Appearances are deceiving. Farrell's character has his own axes to grind. When they are sharpened, heads will roll.
Dead Man Down is not quite leisurely, but it moves slowly and meticulously to that operatic climax during which all hell-on-Earth breaks loose. That gives the movie time to work on the unsettled and unsettling Rapace-Farrell relationship. Both actors possess the gift of winning our sympathy even when their characters are doing bad, bad things. The moral compass in Dead Man Down is affected by the atmospheric interference they generate together.
What the movie lacks, however, is scintillating dialogue to match the quality of the character development. The screenplay by producer-writer J.H. Wyman has the plot but not the words. Rapace and Farrell's best moments are silent and not spoken: body postures, longing looks, emotion welling up in the eyes.
But the most important element is maintained: We care what happens to both of them. You want to watch this movie through to the end.