Friday, March 8, 2013

DEAD MAN DOWN: Niels Arden Oplev's American directing debut proves a winner

So who is Niels Arden Oplev? Remember The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? No, no: the original version. That's right: this guy directed it. And very well, too. Not up to Fincher level, for sure, but profession-ally, intelligently and with a good eye for the visuals. Now, after polishing off a few episodes of the American TV show Unforgettable, he's back with his first real American movie, a nifty, twisty, neo-noir thriller fueled by the need for revenge -- and titled DEAD MAN DOWN.

In both these films (which are the only examples of his work that I've seen), Mr. Oplev, shown at left, combines a flair for action set-pieces, the kind of smart pacing that good thrillers need, strong visuals, crackerjack editing -- and a case for female empowerment. Immeasurably helping that last subject is the star of both movies, Noomi Rapace. This rather special Swedish actress (shown below), who combines beauty and vulnerability with a strong personality and the willingness to try very different roles, here plays a young woman named Beatrice, disfigured via an accident and its repercussions, who is now seeking out a little revenge on the drunk driver who caused it.

The instrument of that revenge is none other than Victor, played by another good actor, the oft-seen-of-late Colin Farrell (below), whose compact, muscular and very sexy little body, coupled to his ability to communicate sensitivity, provides the perfect complement to Rapace's buried beauty and angry vulnerability. These two make a wonderful couple, and the manner in which screenwriter J. H. Wyman and Oplev place them together and let them slowly fuss and fizz goes a long way toward bringing the audience into the movie in a humane and believable manner.

Victor, you see, is a kind of assassin who works for crime sub-kingpin (wouldn't that make him a princepin, or maybe a dukepin?) Terrence Howard, shown below. More than this you should not know going into the movie, for it is full of small surprises that entertain, even as they keep you on your toes.

Also in this mix is Victor's best friend, played by Dominic Cooper (below, left) and -- here's a surprise treat -- Isabelle Huppert as Beatrice's mom, who's a bit hard-of-hearing but enjoys cooking. Huppert adds some lovely class and a little humor to what is basically quite a noir-ish stew, the ingredients of which include family, loss, betrayal, revenge and love.

The movie works as well as it does, I think, due to its excellent construction, in which the initial scene -- an odd but very interesting one -- connects so thoroughly and emotionally with the film's through-line right up to and including its final scene. The morality here is complicated and difficult, and the situations of both hero and heroine are particularly sad.

Farrell and Rapace (above and below) bring genuine chemistry and emotional appeal to their roles, and the supporting cast, for the most part, are properly nasty so that we can watch them die without squirming overly much. Yet this is no Tarrantino kill-fest; Oplex never lingers over the ghastly or the gore. Instead this is a wonderfully satisfying crime-noir melodrama -- perhaps the best in the last decade since that unusually fine French film, Chaos.

From Film District and running a surprisingly lengthy but never overlong 110 minutes, Dead Man Down opens today, Friday, March 8, at theaters everywhere. To find those closest to you, simply click here, and then click on GET TICKETS AND SHOWTIMES.

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