Dead Man Down is easily among the worst movies of the year. It is only a notch above Snitch because it at least had the sense to only take its own unoriginal revenge story seriously. Snitch went the extra mile to get preachy about social issues. Still, it’s laughable how serious Dead Man Down thinks it is, and no fun at all.
We drop right into the action, in medeas res if you will, and it’s still not interesting. Victor (Colin Farrell) works for the gangster Alphonse (Terrence Howard), who’s been receiving vague fragments of a photo and it’s messing with him. Frankly, I didn’t even realize those squares were pieces of a photo until they show the big picture missing center pieces later. They should have shown the photo frame first, but that’s just cinematic semantics. Alphonse gets the gang into an ugly gunfight, ugly meaning it looks grimy and lifeless with no sense of geography.
The film starts to come to life a little when Victor starts courting his neighbor Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), but then it turns out she’s got another generic revenge subplot for Victor. She caught him killing a man so she blackmails Victor into killing the drunk driver who messed up her face. There’s also a newspaper clipping about the driver going free. Do newspapers cover DUI trials? Maybe they’re selling column space for movie props since print is dying.
Now Beatrice stumbles onto Victor’s mob game and learns he’s out for revenge too. It’s soooo personal for him, he lost everything, isn’t that dramatic? No, it’s weak and generic. It works for a cool Steven Seagal movie where he just needs a reason to kick some ass, but not if you’re buying into the story. Victor’s story is so convoluted it loses the purity of revenge. No matter how you dress it up, you’re still making a revenge movie. See Death Sentence, a fine, mature film about the consequences of revenge. Just pouring superficial details onto a character backstory doesn’t make it more relatable. It makes it even more transparent because they’re trying so hard. It’s no fun going along with Victor’s revenge, but it’s so fake it’s hardly a cautionary tale either.
It gets so ridiculous, here’s a mild spoiler of an example. When Alphonse realizes that a certain date holds significance, another character points out that that date is tomorrow. Dun dun dunnnnnnnnn! Honestly, why would Alphonse need to be reminded when the date he just mentioned will fall? Is he thinking about dates in such an abstract sense that he’s not even aware of linear chronology? Of course, they’re telling the audience, badly, that something is going down tomorrow.
Also, what does this mob do? Who do they rule? They only exist as bad guys, which is again fine for a Steven Seagal movie where he needs someone’s ass to kick, but there’s not much spectacle in Dead Man Down, and it sure is pretending it’s got more to say about revenge and coping with loss. It’s still contrived to fit in the revenge formula though, down to shoehorning Beatrice into the finale, but why does it take so long to work it out? This is such a standard, you could do a lean 90 minute thriller of it, but it’s hubris to do a full two hours. Don’t mistake length for substance. You can spend as much time as you want on Victor and Beatrice moping but they’re still filling the same roles in the same plot.
The mean kids in Beatrice’s neighborhood who torment her, calling her monster, make a reasonable case that Beatrice is a victim of her environment. In a better setting, she might have coped without violence. But then the signs of her distraction when she goes back to work are ridiculously overwrought, so even with a promising start of character development, the film can’t get them out of the revenge clichés it so desperately wants to avoid.
There’s a flashy camera move down a stairwell, and a cool part where Victor drives a vehicle through a hideout, but that’s all the credit Dead Man Down gets. Maybe it’s just respectable enough to be no fun. I mean, it feels one step away from Alex Cross, which had an equal tone of sincere intensity but it just went crazy. I’ve seen Alex Cross, and you, Dead Man Down, are no Alex Cross.