Niels Arden Oplev’s “Dead Man Down” is a very serious thriller featuring very serious stars being very serious about the seriousness at hand. Colin Farrell is a soulful Hungarian transplanted to New York, where he works as an enforcer for fatcat thug Terrence Howard. Noomi Rapace is the young beautician, her face disfigured in a recent accident, who falls in love with him. Dominic Cooper is Farrell’s sweet but sort of dumb pal and colleague; he struts hither and thither, dressed in a sad little track jacket and bearing a neck tattoo.
Into the midst of all this mortally serious seriousness glides Isabelle Huppert, as Rapace’s meddlesome, cardigan-wearing, cookie-baking mom, delivering the immortal line, “Sank you for returning my Tupperware.” She has time-traveled from another universe, or perhaps just a different movie – but thank God she’s there.
“Dead Man Down” is actually mildly entertaining, without being particularly fun. Oplev is the guy behind the original Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels; drab, humorless pictures filled with clinically flat grisliness. “Dead Man Down” is more cheerful than any of those movies, which isn’t saying much. Oplev is still fond of the occasional grim detail -- say, hungry sewer rats nibbling on a kidnap victim’s bloody face. But he and screenwriter J.H. Wyman (“The Mexican,” TV’s “Fringe”) do crack a smile now and then: In addition to the aforementioned Huppert, there’s some amusing folderol involving a chartreuse rabbit’s foot and some really bad-news Albanians. (Does any movie ever feature good-news Albanians?)
The plot is filled with twists and turns that occasionally defy logic. The movie opens with the discovery of a corpse in a freezer – Howard “manages” a series of buildings that are used for illicit purposes, and the deceased happens to be his closest friend and associate. Farrell, Cooper and Howard’s other cronies attempt to find out who put the guy in the deep freeze. Meanwhile, Rapace, Farrell’s neighbor in the apartment complex across the way, waves at him demurely through her window. She’s still recovering emotionally from her accident, and mom Huppert is urging her to get back into the swing of things.
She does, but not exactly in the way we expect. Rapace has been skulking around – she’s a champion skulker – nosing into Farrell’s business, which isn’t as straightforward as it at first appears. Both, it turns out, are wounded creatures: Rapace is filled with bitterness toward the guy whose drunken driving resulted in a criss-crossing of red scars across one side of her face (apparently, she’s the only beautician in the world who’s never heard of Dermablend). Farrell harbors his own secret sorrow – you can see it in his eyebrows, twin caterpillars of perpetual anxiety.
Farrell is a good enough actor to play this sort of role in his sleep; still, it would be nice to see him awake, and challenged, for a change. But then, there’s not much that’s challenging about “Dead Man Down.” Shot by Paul Cameron, it makes New York look like any other city in the world, a network of not-very-distinguished streets and buildings, which is something of an accomplishment, I guess. And there’s a great deal of gunfire and senseless killing (as opposed to sensible killing), culminating in a flashy finale that’s thrilling at first, only to run out of steam as the story trundles to a close.
Only Huppert, flitting about in an assortment of Donna Reed-style shirtwaist dresses and silky housecoats, jolts the movie to life. Her daughter is a bit of a nutter, and you can see where she gets it from: Huppert comes from a world – maybe it’s just France – where a lady must keep up appearances for the gentleman caller. Still, she’s the movie’s one concession to grace and style. A little off her rocker, maybe – but “Dead Man Down” could use more of her brand of madness.