It’s happened. I’ve done it. I’ve finally hit the wall. The date is March 6, 2013, and I have officially seen one too many movies. I no longer have any idea what’s good anymore. Dead Man Down is either one of the best movies of the year or one of the very worst.
I see more movies than the average bear, or human for that matter. I see everything that comes out. I probably get tired of trends, clichés and tropes faster than the typical moviegoer, since I have to see movies every single day. I like to think, in my hubris, that this puts me ahead of the curve, but sometimes it does lead me to pan a movie that many people actually enjoy, and sometimes it leads me celebrate a film for being avant-garde while everyone else complains that it fixed something that wasn’t broken yet. I also liked Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which you can take as either a defense or as the final nail in my coffin. But if I’m doing my job, it shouldn’t so much matter what I like so long as I can explain why I liked it, or why I hated it, and allow you to draw your own conclusions based on my ranting.
My point is: I liked watching Dead Man Down, I just don’t know if I liked it for the right reasons. When the credits rolled, I clapped. A respected critic who sat in front of me turned around and said, “Don’t.”
I’m not second-guessing myself here. I’m usually pretty confident when I say something is entertaining, meaningful, a combination of the two, or neither. But Dead Man Down defies traditional concepts of “good” and “bad.” The film starts with a man played by Terrence Howard, who is receiving cryptic threats and creepy surveillance pictures of himself with his eyes carved out, from a maniac who is murdering his friends. We’ve seen that film before, so we probably have some idea where it’s going from there, except in Dead Man Down, Terrence Howard is the bad guy, so all bets are off. He’s a crime lord defending his empire from a badass on a mission of vengeance, played by Colin Farrell, who has infiltrated Howard’s empire as an undercover agent, working for no one, with an elaborate plan to kill Howard and everyone else who was responsible for his family’s murders.
We’ve seen that movie too, but in Dead Man Down, the hero has been ready to execute this plan for years, and is unable to seal the deal. In many respects Farrell plays a traditional action hero, albeit one who needs to overcome a case of clinical procrastination. He’s an isolated assassin who meets a damaged woman played by Noomi Rapace, and together they form an uneasy romantic relationship. We’ve seen that movie too, except in Dead Man Down, she knew Farrell was a killer all along, and only goes out with him so she can blackmail the hero into murdering the drunk driver who scarred her face.
These things are all very different, and they keep Dead Man Down feeling consistently fresh and entertaining, even when from any objective viewpoint they’re also distractingly weird. Under the direction of Niels Arden Oplev (who made the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, also starring Rapace), the film shifts rapidly from unintentionally comic to genuinely sincere, from action-packed to dry character study, from unique cinematic imagery to tired cliché, often back and forth within the same scene. I suspect that if the film was in a foreign language, and set in another country, the cultural disconnect could have smoothed out these creases, creating a unique and inviting world where novelty reigned supreme and making damned sense was a secondary objective at best. But as an American production, set in a recognizable world, Dead Man Down’s many strange plot points, conversations and behaviors are totally alien.
Dead Man Down feels out of place in 21st Century America, despite being set there. Imagine the historical liberties and anachronisms you’d find in a film like Braveheart. Now imagine showing Braveheart to an actual 14th Century Scotsman. That’s what Dead Man Down is like. It’s recognizable as a story, but not one told by any filmmaker, writer or actor who actually grasps what life is really like today, or even what kinds of movies are considered dramatically effective. It’s an outsider’s perspective of American cinema told from within the mainstream movie system, and there’s really nothing like it. Don’t confuse that with a qualitative statement, I’m just trying to explain why it feels so damned weird.
I was captivated by this surreal depiction of human drama, criminal underworlds and old school action sequences, but Dead Man Down doesn’t follow any rules that I’m aware of… like common sense. The hero tries to save a kidnapped girl by driving a truck into the villains’ hideout, having no idea whatsoever where she is in the building. He could have easily killed her. Multiple times in fact. The giant fireball comes pretty damned close to putting her out of commission. I presume the only reason she survives is because in Niels Arden Oplev’s mind, at this point in the story, the hero can do no wrong no matter what he does, because the movie’s almost over and this kind of stuff just happens.
Which is weird, because Dead Man Down resorts to that gunfight even though it spends a large portion of the movie setting up an alternate course of events, in which Farrell and Rapace could have set aside their bloodlust, grown as people, and just plain walked away from the plot altogether. It seems for the longest time like the point of Dead Man Down is that movies with a plot like Dead Man Down’s are stupid, and are merely distractions from real emotional issues. And Dead Man Down is just esoteric enough that I honestly thought they were going there, and that this film would conclude with an emotionally satisfying anticlimax, kind of like The Graduate but with a body count. And yet while the film is daring enough to raise these possibilities, it’s also thoroughly committed to seeing this whole ridiculous thriller genre through to the end, no matter how stupid it gets.
But I enjoyed it! I enjoyed watching Dead Man Down, specifically because it doesn’t make any logical sense, because it was made by Martians, because it breaks all the rules that nobody breaks for a very good reason. I feel like this could very well be the Breathless of the contemporary crime genre, mixing style, superficiality and emotional depth like the act of cooking was more important than the meal. But then again, it could very well just suck… but if it sucks, it sucks in such a unique way that I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
Is this a work of pure genius? Of honest to god naïveté? Of wacky hacksterism? I have no idea whatsoever. I think I have seen way too many movies to tell anyone who hasn't seen way too many movies if this is genius or just plain stupid. All I can say for certain is that I was never bored. I am recommending that you see this, if only so you can explain to me what the hell just happened.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.