Dead Man Down, the grimy English-language directorial debut of Niels Arden Oplev, who helmed the Swedish adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is really two forgettable films, dimly battling for supremacy. The marginally more promising one is an action melodrama about Noomi Rapace (also from the original Dragon Tattoo), a troubled young woman who was physically and emotionally scarred in an accident, attempting to blackmail a low-level hoodlum (Colin Farrell) into murdering the callous judge who hit her with his car. The second, more muddled, less promising B-movie is an insanely involved quest for vengeance against an entire criminal outfit that’s only slightly less time-and-labor-intensive than the manhunt for Osama bin Laden documented in Zero Dark Thirty.
The always-dependable Colin Farrell stars as a steely-eyed gangland enforcer with a dark secret. His life changes when Rapace, the mysterious, scarred woman who lives across the street, reveals that she witnessed him committing a murder, and says she’ll turn him in unless she commits a murder on her behalf. Farrell is understandably reluctant, as he has shadowy, vengeance-minded business of his own to attend to, involving Machiavellian boss Terrence Howard.
Dead Man Down doesn’t tip its hand about its ultimate subject until late in the film. It takes forever to get going, unspooling its hopelessly convoluted, unwieldy plot for so long that it loses whatever marginal narrative momentum it possesses. The film shows a rare, illusory spark of life in a deceptively electric sequence where the full extent of Rapace’s soul-consuming hatred seeps out in an exhilarating burst. In this moment, and pretty much this moment alone, the film runs hot with emotion; otherwise, it’s clammy and oddly detached, in spite of the operatic themes at play. Dead Man Down exerts an unconscionable level of effort for minimal reward: It aspires to exquisite world-weariness, but just ends up feeling exhausted by its frenzied yet fruitless exertions.