Here’s the tip-off that “Dead Man Down,” a new crime movie, may be better than average: it has Armand Assante in it. In fact, a cursory glance at the cast list would stir the pulse of any serious movie fan. F. Murray Abraham, Salieri in “Amadeus,” has a part. Terrence Howard is the chief villain. Isabelle Huppert. Dominic Cooper. Naomi Rapace, of the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and the second “Sherlock Holmes,” is one of the leads. The other is the resurgent Colin Farrell.
Director Niels Arden Oplev (who made the Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” movie) can actually interrupt the sometimes-violent movie story to let the camera watch Rapace and Farrell simply sitting there trying to make conversation. What they are thinking is obvious. The way the actors have of demonstrating what the characters are thinking is fascinating.
Maybe what differentiates crime dramas from action pictures is how they treat sentiment. Bad action movies will sometimes go all teary. Van Damme will use sign language to tell his character’s daughters that he loves them. And then he’ll attack a woman in a Penguin suit and kill her by running her through a commercial kitchen’s dish washer.
In “Dead Man Down,” Victor (Farrell) has already lost his daughter. She was killed by a stray bullet when men working for Alphonse (Howard) were trying to scare emigrant families out of an apartment building he wants to “control.” Emigrants are very important in this film—so important that Alphonse’s whole gang is European in origin.
Alphonse then hired Albanian emigrant hit-men to kill the complaining parents of the little girl. But Victor survived and, supported by his emigrant father (Abraham), infiltrated Alphonse’s gang of tough guys. He is already god-father to the off-spring of fellow thug Darcy (Cooper) who begins the movie with a philosophical observation that will inform the ending in surprising ways: “Even the most damaged heart can be mended.”
Victor has a long-term plan to kill Alphonse, his gang, and the Albanians all at once by getting them into Alphonse’s headquarters and setting off bombs. Vic’s dad points out that the trigger transmitter doesn’t have enough range. Apparently Vic is thinking of being a suicide bomber.
He has kidnapped one of the Albanians, a man he will use to lure that gang into the h.q. on the sanctified day. Audiences can’t ignore that all this is like a radical Muslim terror plot. Then things start to go wrong with Vic’s plans.
One of Alphonse’s thugs associates anonymous taunting mailings to the death of Vic’s daughter. Our hero offs that thug. Then Darcy begins to investigate the thug’s murder on his own. Worse yet, a neighbor, French emigrant Beatrice (Rapace) has seen and filmed Vic killing the guy. She demands that Vic kill the man who, while driving drunk, struck her with his car and caused her face to be scarred.
And then Bea and Vic become interested in each other, and their individual self-sacrifices put them both in danger. This runs us right into an imaginative and wild climax, full of action, and at least a couple of well-prepared but still surprising plot reversals.
“Dead Man Down” is the best movie Oplev and screen writer J.H. Wyman (“The Mexican”) have ever made. It may not bear thinking a lot about later, but while it is running it is smart, fast, and deft in its handling of both action and sentiment. No sign language or penguin mascots here. But there is a breath-takingly unconventional ending.