The illogic and cliché of Dead Man Down is somewhat — only somewhat — mitigated by its gloomy European veneer. That facade takes shape in the form of its Irish and Swedish leads, much of the supporting cast, a gray palette and lots of awkward silences that lend the movie the air of serious drama, yet seem all the more ridiculous set against a carelessly plotted story. Dead Man Down wants to downplay what it is at its core (or should be) — a viscerally charged revenge flick — without doing a decent enough job of pretending to be a somber character study of two damaged souls.
Colin Farrell plays Laszlo Kerick, who in turn masquerades as a thug named Victor. Laszlo’s back story goes like this: He’s a Hungarian engineer who moved to the U.S. with his wife and little daughter. In a plot contrivance that is so unbelievable, it makes sense why it’s never shown in flashback, Laszlo’s loved ones were killed two years prior to the events of the movie by Albanian thugs working for a slick hood named Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard). Hoyt wanted all the tenants out of an apartment building as part of a shady real estate takeover. (While I’m thinking of it, Albanians are on a hot streak of late as menacing figures — they also get their moment in the comedy 21 and Over, being feared not for their brutality, but beer pong prowess.)
Nine months later, Laszlo, who has been presumed dead (and has a headstone to mark him as such), reemerges as a member of Hoyt’s inner circle of henchmen. (How this absurdity could have happened is up to the viewer’s flexible imagination.) In his slow burn for revenge, Laszlo is biding his time until he can round up everyone associated with his family’s death — particularly Hoyt — and blow them to smithereens in a warehouse whose rafters he’s lined with explosives. When he’s not eating dinner and listening in on Hoyt’s calls, or cutting out pictures of his own family and sending them to Hoyt piece by piece, Laszlo kicks back in a secret room behind his refrigerator and watches home movies that keep him in a bad frame of mind.
The company to that misery arrives in Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), who had been in a car accident that left half her face scarred. (Rapace looks like she got a few battle scars from an eagle’s talons, but nothing worse than that.) She and Laszlo exchange annoyingly furtive glances and awkward conversation before she drops the hammer: From her balcony, she had seen Laszlo murder a man in his apartment. In exchange for her silence, she wants him to kill the drunken driver that left her disfigured.
Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, gins up the suspense with moments that strain too hard for noirish ambience and tension. One scene finds Hoyt addressing Laszlo as if he knows he’s the one sending him threatening notes, even though he doesn’t have the slightest reason to be suspicious of him. Earlier in the movie, Hoyt kills an underworld baddie based on ludicrous evidence. A major action set piece would be more exciting if we weren’t left wondering why the otherwise meticulous Laszlo would plan a sniper’s ambush from a building ledge without any clearly defined escape route. His mistake befits a movie that has to find a way out of its own bad decisions.