Dead Man Down is the first American film from Niels Arden Oplev, director of the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but it's not very American. This twisty existential thriller is set in a New York City that's as sun-deprived as Stockholm in January — and one in which nearly everyone speaks English as a second language.
The principal players are Victor, a ruthless thug portrayed by Irish actor Colin Farrell, and Beatrice, a scarred beautician embodied by Hispano-Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, the original dragon-tattoo girl. Victor is supposed to be Hungarian-born, while Beatrice is so French that her mother is played by Isabelle Huppert. (Seriously. Isabelle Huppert.)
The story gets going at full speed, as two tough guys — Victor and his earnest pal Darcy (Dominic Cooper) — are summoned by their boss, Alphonse (Terrence Howard). One of their cohorts has just turned up iced in a freezer, and the elegant but excitable Alphonse wants revenge.
So the well-dressed, carefully pomaded gangster leads a raid on a rival drug lord, who's Jamaican. Cue heavy patois, heavier gunplay and a nearly naked hooker's quick exit. Only then does Oplev get around to rolling the opening credits.
Dead Man Down is a tangle of plots and counterplots, propelled by surprises that are — sometimes — actually surprising. The plot can't be summarized without doing major damage to the experience of watching the movie .... well, of watching the movie lurch, whirl and tease its way to the inevitable climactic shootout.
Let's just say that Victor (the title's "dead man") and Beatrice are both fixated on revenge, and while their causes are entirely separate, they eventually come to overlap. And that both live in a world where justice is available only to people who seize it. There is some talk of cops, lawyers and judges, but all major disputes are finally settled by warring clans or obsessed loners.
Ethnically, the battle pits a polyglot New York gang against an Albanian one against a lone Hungarian with a Magyar support group led by F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus' Salieri). Armand Assante takes a quick spin as a Mafia type who has some sort of supervisory power over Alphonse. The Jamaican drug dealers are included mostly as cannon fodder, and so the score can feature some thumping dance-hall reggae.
J.H. Wyman's script is grim and fairly audacious, without anything so goofy as the silliest stuff in Dragon Tattoo. The story involves some Grand Guignol violence, but its wildest notion is that a suicide-mission plot might somehow yield a happy ending.
Among Dead Man Down's attractions are vigor, panache and — if you like that sort of thing — a bracingly sour worldview. Drawbacks include a palette so dark that viewers will be tempted to clean their glasses or scan the theater for a contrast knob.
The movie's biggest problem, though, is that it just isn't very much fun. The filmmakers recognize that the premise is fairly absurd and try to show they're in on the joke with some comic relief involving cookies, a lucky rabbit's foot and Isabelle Huppert. (Seriously. Isabelle Huppert. As comic relief.)
The shtick seems extraneous, however, and it fails to ease the movie's severity. This is a tale about the sacred obligation of vengeance, and watching it is a bit of a chore.