For an action-revenge flick that doesn't really break any new ground, Dead Man Down is about as good as it can possibly be. Colin Farrell is a grieving father bent on vengeance against a cadre of gangsters responsible for the accidental murder of his daughter and the quite intentional murder of his wife subsequently. Presumed dead by said thugs, Farrell has infiltrated their gang under an assumed identity -- Victor -- with the end game of taking them all down in a glorious blaze.
Complicating those plans is his relationship with a neighbor, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), who first seems to be a romantic flame, but soon thereafter threatens to expose him unless he helps her carry out her own revenge fantasy against a drunk driver responsible for a car accident that left her face painfully disfigured. Between the parallel revenge storylines and the pains Victor must continuously go through to conceal his identity from the gangsters he is trying to kill while also still maintaining their trust, this is a more complex and clever yarn than you might expect from a straightforward-looking WWE Studios vehicle.
It is at its best when the mystery elements are being emphasized. Why does Beatrice take such a great interest in Victor? Is there anything that might change Victor's motivations? Is there any way he can stay a step ahead of the ruthless criminals who killed his wife and daughter? Those questions are asked -- authoritatively -- in a handful of crackling scenes involving Victor and Beatrice, Victor and Darcy (Dominic Cooper), the one member of his adopted crew he isn't hellbent on exacting revenge against, and, most notably, between Victor and Alphonse (Terrence Howard), the man principally to blame for the tragedy that destroyed Victor's life.
When the familiar value-of-vengeance theme is being pushed, it isn't elevated at all. But it isn't bad either when this is the focus, and I'm not sure that any staleness is really the fault of this film in particular. The virtues and curses of revenge are ubiquitous enough in Western culture so as to be tired by default. Of course Farrell's character, and Rapace's for that matter, must meditate on whether going to the lengths they are going will actually be worth it in the end. Of course the answer, whatever they end up actually doing (see, no spoilers here!), is no. This isn't particularly interesting stuff, but there are no missteps in Dead Man Down either. The subject isn't dismissed casually just because it's been covered more than a few times over the centuries.
Whether you're trying to discern Beatrice's raison d'etre or simply wondering if Victor is going to follow through with his grand plan, the point is that you care what happens to the main players here. Considering everything that might so easily work against a film like this, that's not an insignificant achievement from Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, previously best known for the Swedish-language version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.