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The Globe and Mail

Dead Man Down: A thriller whose intricate twists actually pay off

Noomi Rapace and Colin Farrell in Dead Man Down.

John Baer/AP

3 out of 4 stars

Written by
J.H. Wyman
Directed by
Niels Arden Oplev
Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Isabelle Huppert

Lumpy title, lively movie. Dead Man Down proves to be a frisky gangster flick cum elaborate thriller cum off-beat romance. Yep, there's a whole lot going on here, but this is one of those plot-heavy scripts that carries its weight with confidence – the intricate twists don't cheat. Instead, they're always engaging and just credible enough to leave you feeling surprised but not unduly manipulated. Factor in a terrifically professional cast (not a weak link anywhere), plus the brisk direction of Niels Arden Oplev (rightly celebrated in these parts for his work on the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and the result is basic arithmetic: Adds up to an entertaining picture.

The setting is a dirty New York seldom seen on camera. This is Manhattan with morning breath and a two-day stubble, specifically those blocks on the Lower East Side where the stolid high-rise apartments could be Soviet issue, all a uniform muddy brown. There, the opening frame spots a typically tattooed hoodlum in an altogether atypical pose. He's cradling his swaddled infant and quoting his adored wife: "Even the most damaged heart can be mended." Cut to his buddy, a silently glum Colin Farrell looking like a man whose ticker is in serious need of mending, and we know where this yarn is headed.

Or think we do. A transplanted Hungarian, Victor (Farrell) is a dues-paying member of a gang which appears to be suffering major casualties – cut to a dead thug in a home freezer – inflicted by a rival band of Albanians. Away from the mean streets, he occupies a lonely abode high in those mud-brown apartments, where, one fine night, he spies an apparently fair damsel though the window of an identical building across the courtyard. As the pair exchange a tentative wave from their respective balconies, the genre switches gears fluidly, and Rear Window cozies up to star-crossed love.

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But on their first date, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) isn't quite what she seems from afar. Not so fair – the entire left side of her face bears red scars from a car accident. And not so innocent – she's seeking revenge on the drunk driver who maimed her, and Victor certainly has the credentials for the job. As it happens, he also has revenge on his homicidal mind, although I won't say any more. Since the labyrinthine plot is a large part of the movie's fun, neither plot nor fun should be spoiled.

So let's dwell on the other sources of enjoyment, especially Rapace's performance. As in the Millennium trilogy, her character is physically battered, again obliging the actress to compete against her own intrinsic beauty. This time she wages the competition with a beguiling mix of anger and vulnerability. Her wounds are still fresh and "it hurts to smile," but not so much that the occasional light doesn't break through – a naturally sunny disposition is a wonderfully resilient trait. At the core, Rapace delicately suggests, Beatrice has escaped injury. She was lucky to have the support of her French mother, which affords us the equal good fortune of watching Isabelle Huppert in a lovely cameo – gliding about the kitchen cooking the poulet, yet always monitoring her daughter from the corner of a vigilant eye.

Meanwhile, back in gangsterland, Oplev handles the bullets and the double-crosses with efficient dispatch, then cranks up the gruesome quotient on a disused freighter anchored at a dingy dock, where a shackled bad guy learns to to his chagrin that rats do not leave a deserted ship. Unfortunately, our credulity does get strained at the climax, when the wisdom of driving a pickup truck straight through a living-room window is definitely overstated. No matter. That suspect ending comes too late to cause any lasting damage – Dead Man Down has a strong heart scarcely in need of mending.

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