Dead Man Down may be the most disappointing film I’ve experienced this year. No, it’s not disappointing because it’s a bad movie. I’ve seen considerably worse movies already this year. Dead Man Down disappoints because it fails to live up to its incredible potential.
When reviewing a film, I typically try to avoid reading reviews or catching trailers. I want the five or so people who regularly read my ravings to understand my opinion on the film itself. However, I want to do something different this time. I want to set the film itself next to the trailer advertising the film, and explain why the trailer is vastly superior to the finished product.
Now, there’s a reason no one does that: trailers are almost always better than the film they’re advertising. However, that’s typically true because the trailers only show the best parts of the film. The trailer for Dead Man Down is different—it uses footage from the film to create an almost completely different experience from seeing the movie itself. The trailer doesn’t simply emphasize the best parts of the movie, it tells a better story. It’s amazing.
That’s the theatrical trailer for Dead Man Down. All of the elements for a solid neo-noir are present: a cold-blooded femme fatale, an anti-hero with a sordid history, a psychopathic gangster, and lots of murder. Like any tightly wound noir, the plot seems straightforward: a young woman—possibly a prostitute—blackmails a professional hitman into offing the man who carved up her face. The trailer gives the vibe of Unforgiven meets The Postman Always Rings Twice by the way of David Fincher.
Unfortunately, the movie isn’t nearly that awesome. Colin Farrell plays Victor, a Hungarian immigrant whose family who family was murdered by a gangster known as Alphonse (Terrence Howard in full-on scumbag mode). By the time the film begins, Victor has already infiltrated Alphonse’s gang and begun the process of psychologically picking the murderer apart.
Meanwhile, Noomi Rapace plays Beatrice, a beautician whose face was seriously damaged after being struck by a drunk driver. She wants revenge. Beatrice lives in tenement across from Victor’s apartment. Just as in the trailer, she attempts to blackmail Victor into murdering the man who hurt her. Victor spends the rest of the film alternating between falling in love with Beatrice and planning the deaths of both the drunk driver and Alphonse.
Now, it should be readily apparent why the story depicted in the trailer makes for a better film than writer J.H. Wyman’s screenplay for Dead Man Down. The narrative in the trailer is tight, concise, and it involves all of the primary players in the same plot. Noirs always work best when they’re tightly constructed, and the plot for this trailer can be told in a single sentence.
In contrast, the film Dead Man Down is something of a bloated mess. All of the elements for a fantastic neo-noir are present. Colin Farrell makes for a solid anti-hero; Noomi Rapace is striking and enigmatic as a revenge-driven femme fatale; Terrence Howard makes for a smooth, intimidating villain; the subject matter is suitably seductive and violent; and director Niels Arden Opley has created a visually dark and grimy piece of work. However, all of those elements are working heroically against an aimless story. There are too many threads here, and most of them lead nowhere.
Much of Dead Man Down involves Victor looking pensive as he plots the demise of Alphonse. Victor and Beatrice spend a lot of time gazing soulfully at each other whilst they discuss the ramifications of seeking revenge. Terrence Howard’s brilliant performance as the increasingly paranoid and unhinged Alphonse is relegated to the background. Many of the characters are static and unchanging. The film drags on interminably.
The people responsible for editing the Dead Man Down trailer didn’t simply make a commercial. They offered a powerful critique of the film they were advertising. They took all of the elements that could have made Dead Man Down a classic film and assembled them into a truncated whole that was better than the film itself.
Now that’s merely speculation on my part. I know nothing about the process of creating movie trailers. For all I know, the editors here were dealing with an incomplete cut of the film, and they had no inkling of what they were doing. Regardless, the trailer is brilliant. I wanted to see that movie. I still want to see that movie.
Who knows? Maybe one day some enterprising film student will take the footage from the completed film and edit it so that we get the experience promised by the trailer. However, that’s the only way I’d ever watch Dead Man Down again. The film itself is simply another example of wasted potential.