"Dead Man Down" is unusual - not great, not bad, and certainly not as run-of-the-mill as previews make it look.
This slow but thoughtful thriller was directed by Niels Arden Oplev (the Swedish "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") from a script by J. H. Wyman (TV's "Fringe"); it stars Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace (also of "Dragon Tattoo"), Armand Assante, F. Murray Abraham - and, as the villain, Terrence Howard.
The trailer makes it seem as though Farrell's character - a low-level mob worker - is being blackmailed into killing his own gangland boss (Howard).
This film image released by FilmDistrict shows Noomi Rapace, left, and Colin Farrell in a scene from “Dead Man Down.”
In fact, the tale is much more complex; indeed, "Dead Man" risks alienating viewers by keeping them in the dark for nearly half its length.
Suffice it to say that everything eventually becomes clear - as the script develops two story strands, both involving violent revenge.
It's clear that Wyman has thought through the ramifications of retribution; how victims see vengeance as something that will set them free, when in fact it only binds them more firmly to the trauma - and once accomplished, often leaves nothing to live for.
Farrell and Rapace play neighbors battling such past demons, and Wyman shows how this dual quest for justice interferes with their relationship - which is, after all, a much more likely source of healing than vindictive bloodshed.
Along these lines, Wyman's wisest choices occur near the end, where the film threatens to become a vengeance bloodbath a la "Death Wish" and "Walking Tall."
Instead, Wyman throws in two small but effective plot twists which, rather than existing merely for surprise, point toward the theme of healing vs. hate.
In other words, he's done something rare in thrillers - carefully tying his plot to the message, all the way through to the resolution, which is swift, smart and surprising.
I was drawn to the notion of the debonair and magnetic Howard ("Iron Man," "Crash," "Law & Order: L.A.") as the bad guy - an idea so obvious it's amazing no one thought of it till now. Here it works here beautifully - especially in one tense exchange with Farrell where neither character is quite sure how much the other knows.
Howard has eight more projects in the works; let's hope someone else takes that handsome slickness and turns it into the polished menace exuded here.
Rapace is solid, though I couldn't stop thinking how her character's facial scars - the reason she wants revenge - don't really make her any less appealing.
"Dead Man" also boasts terrific Hitchcockian camerawork and first-rate sets, especially the derelict ocean liner.
The movie's only problem is its leaden pace.
The taciturn nature of Farrell's character - and the film's determination to keep us guessing - results in long silences supposedly loaded with significance but really only awkward and tedious.
The picture has a strong conclusion - but it sure takes a long time to get there.
*** (out of four)
The movie is rated R for language, violence and sexuality.