Dead-serious "Dead Man Down" made watchable by mood and cast

Dead Man Down (2013) 
110 min., rated R.

Director Niels Arden Oplev, who helmed the successful Swedish-language version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," has a little reunion with star Noomi Rapace in his American theatrical debut, "Dead Man Down." More highbrow than its nonsensical title would suggest, this serviceable payback-crime-thriller somewhat rises above the rote and silly with a focus on character, a dead-serious tone, and a measured, distinctly European rhythm. For a while, it turns out to have a little more under the surface than one initially expects for a lean, mean thriller, even if not every plot piece is carefully considered.

"Even the most damaged heart can be mended," tells friend and fellow hitman Darcy (Dominic Cooper) to Victor (Colin Farrell), who's part of the crew run by New York kingpin Alphonse (Terrence Howard). That's exactly what Victor tries doing once the pieces to the puzzle match up and the film tips its hand, but first: Victor displays his "loyalties" to Alphonse, who has been receiving death-threat photos of himself, as well as pieces of a family photo, for the past few months. Meanwhile, looking across the way from his apartment, Victor locks eyes with a woman on the 18th floor (point for "Rear Window"). Emotionally and facially scarred from a car accident a year ago, a beautician named Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) decides to finally get in touch with the man who's been staring at her as much as she does at him. On her first date, where she does most of the talking, Beatrice reveals her true intentions: with her perfect view, she captured a video of Victor killing a man in his apartment. Unless he wants to be blackmailed, he will have to kill the drunk driver who has disfigured Beatrice in her accident. Still grieving over the deaths of his own wife and daughter, Victor eventually reveals to Beatrice his true motivations in working for Alphonse. Joyous vengeance ensues.

Had screenwriter J.H. Wyman (2001's "The Mexican") scrapped some of the stuff with Alphonse, more time could have been spent on fully forming the relationship between Victor and Beatrice and their painful character layers. The script does open up some fascinating avenues with these two damaged souls, who are allowed to breathe without being completely constrained to the plot. But as is, the film feels like two gap-toothed stories spliced together rather than all of a piece. After the character seems to have shady ulterior motives herself, Beatrice then starts to care about Victor, which is where the script treats her cathartic revenge almost as an afterthought and really goes out of its way to make her more sympathetic. Cruel kids in the playground outside of the apartment complex call her "monster," carve her nickname into her front door, and throw rocks at her, leaving Beatrice with a red-stained white dress. Fortunately, the proceedings are further bolstered by Jacob Groth's moody score and Paul Cameron's crisp, sleek lensing.

Consistently magnetic in any role he takes, Farrell does solid work as Victor. Until more character shadings reveal themselves, Victor is just a morally grey man of few words, but we later understand why. Towering in the role of Lisbeth Salander and then wasted as window dressing in the "Sherlock Holmes" sequel, Rapace is quite captivating as Beatrice, which is most likely her strongest Hollywood performance since "Prometheus." The lead players are most interesting when they're bruised, and together, they work up some chemistry, which doesn't come to a hot-and-heavy boil under the very end. Howard hasn't had a really juicy role in years, and this still isn't it, but he brings out some slimy menace in the cardboard bad-guy role. He has one portentous, cracklingly written scene, where it seems he might know about Victor's true identity and motivation. Without having anything to do with the actual plot, casting ornaments include Isabelle Huppert as Beatrice's partially deaf mother who lives with Beatrice, likes baking cookies and has a delightfully odd dialogue involving Tupperware; F. Murray Abraham has a couple of fine scenes as Victor's late wife's uncle; and Armand Assante pops up once in a meeting with Alphonse because, well, where the heck has he been?

Kept thoroughly watchable by its cast, "Dead Man Down" starts off credible enough and reasonably engaging, until someone is kidnapped and it heads down an obligatory stretch of bullet-riddled action that seems to come from a dumber, less convincing movie. Imagine 2011's masterful "Drive" imploding with a third act from the worst of the "Die Hard" series (this year's "A Good Day to Die Hard"). As utterly unmemorable as it is, this mostly gets the job done. In a very stagnant start of the year for action thrillers, one should take what they can get.

Grade: C +