Dead Man Down looks and sounds terrific, but does that mean you should buy it?
Perhaps it’s the amount of films I see every year in the theater (more than 100), but I tire of the predictable, assembly-line style which Hollywood presents itself. Too many times we see cookie-cutter storylines that seem to achieve more in their trailers than in their final product. Imagine my surprise as 2013 thrust itself upon us with so many excellent early films (Jack Reacher, Snitch, Gangster Squad, Trance) that seemed to push the envelope of standard Hollywood fare. And while it had the best intentions, Dead Man Down is unfortunately a victim of its own creation, a rusty door whose new coat of paint doesn’t hide a flawed third act. Its arrival onto Blu-ray looks and sounds terrific, even if the overall product disappoints.
Collin Farrell (Total Recall 2012) plays the Hungarian Victor, a strong arm for Terrence Howard (Crash), whose character Alphonse has been sent a series of strange pictures and letters, each with Alphonse’s eyes crossed out. This leads the drug lord to conclude that one of his competitors is gunning for him. What he doesn’t know is that Victor is his secret Valentine, vis a vie a tragic event that I won’t share here, because it will ruin your enjoyment of the movie. But Victor has several distractions in his way that could keep him from realizing his goal: his best friend and fellow thug Darcy (Dominic Cooper, Captain America: TFA) has been assigned to investigate the letters, leading Victor to play an elaborate game of cat and mouse to keep him off-scent. But it’s his new love interest in Beatrice (Noomi Rapace, Prometheus) that presents the greatest challenge. Horribly scarred in a freak car accident, Beatrice wants revenge and basically blackmails Victor into carrying out the hit on an unrelated character. As Alphonse discovers his secret admirer, Victor’s game of revenge concludes in a bloody showdown that pits his need for revenge against saving Beatrice and starting a new life.
There’s so much to like about this film, from the tension-inducing direction of Niels Arden Polev (the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), the terrific cinematography of Paul Cameron (Collateral), and the deep list of A-actors – including supporters F. Murray Abraham and Armand Assante – who Polev’s assembled. Farrell and Cooper have good chemistry, while Howard’s long piercing stares give him a suitably nasty edge, making him the perfect slimeball-gangster-murder. Farrell’s everyday-guy persona plays well in Down, giving greater credence to his tragic past. But it’s Rapace who steals most scenes she’s in: she is truly tortured soul who wants (no, needs) retribution before she can move on. And even when that demon is put to rest, she must still endure a life filled with the daily taunting of her neighbors as they yell ‘Monster!’ at her as she leaves her dingy apartment. We instantly empathize for her as she attempts to resurrect her career as a beautician, but know that something has got to give; we feel the same pulling when Farrell’s past is revealed, making the duo’s chance meeting seem a bit destined. Polev and Cameron present a gritty, armpit side of New York that few people know about, making you realize that every town has its shanty-ness.
Dead Man Down ultimately fails due to the script by J.H. Wyman (Fringe series), which had everything going for it in Acts 1 & 2. What starts as a graphic and rewarding picture of organized crime, deceit, and the way life practices random cruelty on good people devolves into a predictable third act shootout. In the end, all the darkness Victor is planning never evolves into genuine danger for our protagonists, that the precipice he’s placed upon his life will ultimately be anything else other than a happy ending, or at least the accidental death of an innocent. Like Beatrice, my need to see our character pay the ultimate price was almost an essential last piece that I deserved to witness. Call me negative, but nothing in our lives that starts so dark ends so well as this one does. When I didn’t get that ‘break a few eggs’ ending, I saw a terrific opportunity missed. Not all films must end well for a film to be good, especially when the writer spends two acts leading you to believe so. This sudden compromise near film’s end seems oddly out of place; our production team must have realized the corner they had painted themselves, but steered away from what was thematically right. What was a visually superior, well-crafted thriller turns into a glitzy and unnecessary shootout that looks more like Die Hard than Broken City. Say what you want about that film, but at least Wahlberg and Crowe didn’t require a massive shootout to maintain their personalities or to seek their ultimate revenge upon each other.
Dead Man Down is an example of how sometimes a good idea can get lost through execution; a nip here, a tuck there, and it would have been the next Donnie Brasco. In the end, it’s just a fun thriller that could have been so much more.
There is definitely something wrong with the MPEG-4/AVC video transfer of Dead Man Down, one of the darkest-looking pictures of the year. The entire problem lies in what’s called ‘crushed blacks,’ where the varying levels of dark and shadows you would normally see have been ‘crushed’ into one single shade of black. It’s apparent all over the transfer, from details in hair and clothes to interior hallway shots. The problem even spills into outdoor scenes which almost have an overcast look to them. Night or dusk scenes are even worse, plunging anything black into a dark mess. Check out the cemetery scene around 1:10:10 to see what I mean. This has a cumulative effect on everything else in the print, muting many of the bright colors and hiding the fine detail, such as I mentioned before. Remove this problem, and I honestly think you would have one of the best transfers of the year. The evidence lies just next to the crush, in a color palette and detail scheme itching to break free. Lines on foreheads and general detail on buildings and clothing can still be seen, even though colors do look a bit cartoon-like in some scenes. But that’s due more to Cameron’s choices to depict the film in a greenish/orange mix that works very well for the film
This problem seems entirely related to the studio transfer, not any perceived issue with Polev and Cameron. At least Sony didn’t include aliasing, banding, or edge enhancement to the release.
If Sony dropped the ball on the video transfer for Dead Man Down, they more than made up for it in a booming DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Everything sounds good here, from the orchestral/electronic music by Composer Jacob Groth, to the thumping lossless effects track. Sometimes a thundering and generally loud soundscape can hide dialogue, or worse muffle it in quiet scenes. Not here: dialogue is precise, moves across the soundfield, and shows up often in the rear speakers. You can hear glasses clinking and chatter in restaurants and cars passing by in outdoor scenes, while music erupts across all five speakers. The LFE flexes its considerable muscle, particularly in the action-packed climax. Gun blasts erupt, while explosions and other impact sounds keep the subwoofer busy throughout the presentation. The climax was so loud and penetrating that I actually lowered the volume because I was worried about burning my speakers. That’s not a bad thing, because even with the heightened volume, sound was never blaring or ever incomprehensible. That’s a testament to Sony’s audio department, who hits a homerun with this release. From a natural-sounding ambiance (like rainfall and thunder), to the solid and pulsing lossy track, Dead Man Down easily ranks among the year’s best.
To say that the supplements (or lack thereof) included in Dead Man Down are disappointing does not quite capture my emotions. Instead of receiving a much-needed commentary track from Polev and Farrell, we are presented with a somewhat unsatisfying set of insights that work on one level, but which could have benefited from a commentary. See how you feel when presented the following, all of which are in HD:
- Revenge and Redemption: Crafting Dead Man Down (11:30): A typical EPX piece, the cast and crew are interviewed about the movie and talk up Director Niels Arden Oplev. By the way, you see none of the crush from the film in any of the studio interviews or still photos.
- Revenge Technique: The Cinematography (6:31): The movie’s creators speak about the shooting locations and the film’s gritty appearance. For more evidence of the crush, look at the street scene right around 1:07. You can see the brightness that was originally intended by our team.
- Staging the Action: The Firefights (5:44): The film’s action scenes are broken down by the cast and crew, with several nice storyboards serving as the backbone for the shooting.
Our evaluation copy did arrive in a very attractive, embossed slipcase with beautiful interior artwork. There are also DVD and Ultraviolet Digital Copy of the film. However, it’s not enough to improve this rating – a 50GB disc should be overflowing with content, ready to educate the moviegoer and take their experience to the next level. Instead, we get a merely decent set of extras that could have been so much more.
What should have been the next great revenge thriller, Dead Man Down devolves into a hopeful and ultimately predictable film that doesn’t reward moviegoers for sticking around. It sounds terrific, but serious issues with the video transfer and a lack of a commentary track keep me from giving it a higher score. Without that opportunity to learn the director’s insights, the supplements become merely gloss over an uneven product. Rent Dead Man Down before making a decision to buy it. You could do a lot worse, but the missed opportunity at greatness might bother you as well. Dead Man Down is rated R for language and brief nudity and has a runtime of 117 minutes.