Victor (Colin Farrell) is a player in in gangland kingpin Alphonse's (Terrence Howard) empire and, though he gives the appearance of being Alphonse's right-hand man, his intentions towards the crime lord are decidedly darker. Meanwhile, the girl in the apartment opposite, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), watches him dispatch an adversary and blackmails him into dishing out a generous serving of retribution that she herself is unable (or unwilling) to administer.
Neils Arden Oplev (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and currently shooting Stephen King's Under the Dome) peels back layer after layer to reveal ever-rawer characters and emotions in Dead Man Down. It isn't just about unfolding the story, though he does so beautifully, it is more about filling out the characters carefully so that we understand what makes them tick. No, what makes them angry.
There are some severely damaged characters on display here but their emotions, their actions, come across as not just understandable but entirely justified. Forget petty crooks with violent whims, Victor and Beatrice have given serious thought to their revenge but that doesn't make them shallow or irredeemable.
While Victor bubbles along in a coldly, organized manner, Beatrice rages under her skin. On the surface she is the cool cat but the confusion, the maelstrom of rage, bitterness and loss, swirls within her so that she is potentially dangerous to herself and Victor. It is tempting to use the old cliché of both Farrell and Rapace 'never being better' but it isn't true in her case; she is frequently this good, even if the films don't always match her talent. In Farrell's case, he has so many under-performing films (London Boulevard, Tigerland) and the odd turkey (Total Recall) on his CV that it is easy to forget that he is generally on very fine form. Don't believe me? Look again at Phone Booth, In Bruges
Howard has a reputation in the industry of being 'difficult' (note the recasting of Colonel Rhodes in the Iron Man sequels) but his body of work is extraordinary and the intensity of his performance in Dead Man Down makes it blindingly obvious why he's a good bet on screen. There's no Nicolas Cage-type ranting, just a considered, quiet violence to his Alphonse.
Dominic Cooper slips along in Dead Man Down, not at all unremarkable, but just another fine actor and a superbly cast film. As Darcy, another of Alphonse's mob and friend of the traitorous Victor, he comes across as a good(ish) guy who's unfortunate to be caught up in entirely the wrong job in the wrong place at the wrong time. He doesn't steal scenes here but he fills them out, he completes them, knowing his place in the hierarchy of the mob and his billing in the film.
Oplev has crafted a very fine thriller indeed. The drama excites, the explosions scorch the skin but what makes Dead Man Down stand above so many others in the genre (I'm talking to you, Welcome to the Punch) is not the ramped up action but the stillness and the time and care he takes over his characters and the setting of the atmosphere. He allows us time to enjoy the clinking of ice-cubes in glasses as Victor and Beatrice consider each other and, strangely for a director of an action flick, allows the dialogue to do the talking rather than the gunshots and the car chases.
Dead Man Down is at times gentle but always thrilling and the pauses in the action don't ever detract from the pace. Conversely, they make it more intense and a film that truly deserves to register at the box office in spite of the big-buck, megastar vehicles of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness. I fear it will be another 'underperforming' film on Farrell's CV, but don't for a minute confuse that with being a flop. The dead man might be down but he definitely isn't out.
For more reviews from The Squiss, subscribe to my blog and like the Facebook page.