Dead Man Down is the American filmmaking debut for Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, who’s most notable for helming the 2009 Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s always a troubling notion for foreign directors to travel to Hollywood, and it didn’t help matters that Dead Man Down was produced by World Wrestling Entertainment. Against all odds, though, this is one hell of a good action-thriller that carries the same sophistication and European tone of Oplev’s earlier efforts. It’s astonishing to discover that the effort came from WWE Studios, who also produced such abortions as The Marine and See No Evil. While Dead Man Down indulges in some brainless action material, the effort carries more maturity than expected. It’s nothing too spectacular, but it delivers what it says on the tin.

A man harbouring many secrets, Victor (Colin Farrell) works as an enforcer for local crime boss Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), whose organisation is in turmoil due a number of threats he’s been receiving. Victor makes an unexpected connection with Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), who lives in the building across from him and who was in a car crash that left her with a scarred face. As the pair begin establishing trust, Beatrice’s motivations take a sharp turn: she has incriminating video evidence of Victor killing a man, but she will refrain from going to the authorities as long as he kills the man who caused her accident. Although shocked at the request, Victor agrees to take care of the problem, but things become complicated when he discloses his troubled past. As secrets spill out, Victor is revealed to be a man on a vendetta of vengeance against Alphonse, and this may put both himself and Beatrice in the line of fire.

What’s notable about J.H. Wyman’s screenplay is the way it avoids the most obvious clichés. We have seen revenge films before, but not one involving someone who has spent years undercover in a crime syndicate entirely for himself. Likewise, we’ve seen romances in action films, but it’s not often the female is immediately aware of the protagonist’s violent disposition. It would be unfairly cynical to say that Dead Man Down is outright unoriginal, as it’s not played as obviously as most other movies of this ilk. Furthermore, the film is more of a thriller than a mindless action pic, with character development taking precedence over gunplay. However, the final act does become a tad too standard-order; Beatrice turns into a damsel in distress, and there are a few moments which strain credulity (one gunman just stares at an obvious bomb for a few seconds before it detonates, instead of taking cover). Still, this material is not a deal-breaker, especially with an unexpected character moment at the end between Victor and one of Alphonse’s goons he considered a friend.

Dead Man Down carries the look and feel of a stylish neo-noir, photographed by the brilliant Paul Cameron who also served as cinematographer on Michael Mann’s 2004 gem Collateral. It’s hard to deny that this flick looks beautiful, competently framed and bathed in cold colours that give it a look belying its modest budget. Furthermore, the action scenes are visually striking and coherent; while the camera is a bit shaky at times, it’s always easy to follow what’s happening, and the set-pieces are always exciting. Most exhilarating is the climactic shootout, a stunning action scene that closes the film with a satisfying bang. The screenplay may be flawed, but Oplev’s visual treatment of the material is sublime. Furthermore, Dead Man Down carries its R-rating with pride, never baulking from capturing the true realities of this dim and violent world. Most intense is a scene featuring a bunch of feral rats that’ll have light-hearted movie-goers squirming in their seats.

Farrell has never had much luck as a leading man, succeeding more as a supporting presence in films like Fright Night and Horrible Bosses (though he’s brilliant as a main player in In Bruges). He gave it his all here, clearly committing to the material as Victor, but he lacks a spark of excellence to make his performance anything truly special. More successful is Rapace, delivering a staggering portrayal of Beatrice. She’s an unwavering source of interest, brilliantly expressing both inward and outward injuries. It’s rare to see such a talented female lead in an action film. Meanwhile, Howard makes for an effective heavy, and Dominic Cooper is superb as one of Alphonse’s goons.

There is not a great deal that’s specifically wrong with Dead Man Down, but it’s not exactly the most spectacular film you’ll see this year. It’s one of those movies that keeps you engaged for most of its runtime without ever achieving full lift-off. Still, this is definitely one to check out thanks to Oplev’s competent direction and the strong cast.

7.1/10