Does Dead Man Down establish itself as the next Donnie Brasco? Read our review to find out.
Although the Collin Ferrell/Terrence Howard thriller Dead Man Down seeks to answer a fairly basic question of revenge, it's also a story about what happens when humanity gets in the way. Ferrell (Total Recall 2012) plays the Hungarian Victor, a strong arm for Howard's (Crash) Alphonse, who's recently been sent a series of strange letters and pictures. Alphonse's eyes have been crossed out of them, leading the drug lord to suspect that one of his competitors is gunning for him. What he doesn't know is that Victor is the secret admirer, via a tragic event that I won't share here, because it will be key to your enjoyment of the movie. Anyways, Victor soon has several distractions that could keep him from realizing his goal: his best friend and fellow thug Darcy (Dominic Cooper, Captain America: TFA) is piecing together the mystery man angle, but it's Victor's new love interest Beatrice (Noomi Rapace, Prometheus) that could do him in. Horribly scarred by a drunk driver, Beatrice herself wants revenge and basically blackmails Victor into carrying out the hit. Meanwhile, the rope around Alphonse tightens as he discovers Victor's secret, leading to a bloody showdown that pits his need for revenge against saving Beatrice from Alphonse's clutches.
There's a lot to like about this film, from the terrific cinematography of Paul Cameron (Collateral), the tension-inducing direction of Niels Arden Polev (the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), and the strong list of A-actors who he's assembled. Ferrell and Cooper have good chemistry, while Howard's long stares seem to pierce the screen and any character who gets in his way, making him the perfect slimeball-gangster-murder. I genuinely like everything I've seen Ferrell in: his everyday guy persona plays well in Down, making his tragic past all the more believable. But it's Rapace who steals most scenes she's in: her tortured soul wants (no, needs) retribution before she can move on to a life filled daily with the taunting of her neighbors as they yell 'Monster!' at her as she leaves her dingy apartment. We instantly empathize for her as she attempts to resurrect her career as a beautician; we feel the same pulling when Ferrell's past is revealed, making the duo's meeting seem all the more destined. Polev and Cameron work the camera quite well, painting a New York few people outside of it see, making you realize that every town has its shanty-ness.
The real trouble lies in the script by J.H. Wyman (Fringe series), which has everything going for it in Acts 1 & 2, painting a graphic picture of organized crime, deceit, and the way life practices random cruelty on good people. But it's that third act - when Beatrice is kidnapped by Darcy and brought to Alphonse's house, forcing Victor to adjust his plans resulting in a violent shootout - that feels awkward and out of place. As I watched, I got the feeling that someone other than Alphonse needed to die, that hope and retribution in this film was going to come at a cost. When I didn't get that, I saw a terrific opportunity missed - not all films need to end well to be good, especially when the writer spends two acts leading you to believe so. This sudden compromise into the light must have been seen as necessary to the production team, who perhaps saw all the dark corners and menacing looks as a needed physical third act to offset some imagined perception of boredom. But for moviegoers the decision simply reduces its final effect. What was a visually superior, well-crafted thriller turns into a glitzy and unnecessary shootout that looks more like Die Hard than Broken City. Say what you want about that film, but at least Wahlberg and Crowe didn't require a massive shootout to maintain their personalities or to seek their ultimate revenge upon each other.
Down is an example of how sometimes a good idea can get lost through execution; a nip here, a tuck there, and it would have been the next Donnie Brasco. In the end, it's just a fun thriller that could have been so much more. Dead Man Down is rated R for language and brief nudity and has a runtime of 110 minutes.
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