Dead Man Down might look like just another crime thriller on the surface, but it's nothing like most of what you've seen from the genre before. This movie is really an unapologetic melodrama -- one that just happens to be punctuated by torturous grit and absolutely bonkers action sequences. The worst you can say about it is that it doesn't follow many of the unspoken rules about American crime dramas: You're supposed to be able to predict the emotional beats and cathartic moments on a prescribed schedule laid down by so many films in the past, but Dead Man Down follows its own rhythm. New York City is supposed to be the chief supporting character in a mob movie, but here, the dinginess of the Lower East Side as seen through our Hungarian protagonist's eyes is just an extension of Eastern Europe's bleakness. You're already destined for either a breath of fresh air or a sigh of disappointment, depending on your expectations.
That Hungarian protagonist with the dreary worldview is Victor (Colin Farrell). He lives in a monolithic tenement-style apartment building in New York's broken-down Lower East Side and is employed by a crime boss named Alphonse (Terrence Howard), for whom he does pretty much any and all dirty jobs assigned to a master criminal's crew. Victor is really closed off emotionally, which is apparently not a job requirement, as a fellow member of Alphonse's crew, Darcy (Dominic Cooper), has a newborn baby son, who motivates him to find success in his field and work harder at strong-arming and killing guys so that he can better provide as a father. Meanwhile, Victor can barely bring himself to raise a hand and wave at the pretty French woman who lives in the apartment facing his, one building over. Her name is Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) and she's not particularly social either, since her face was severely scarred when a drunk driver hit her two years ago. But somehow the two reticent people connect, and as the grand opera of their tragedy and romance plays out, so do a series of criminal twists and turns, all of which become personal -- because it's that kind of story.
It can be tough to watch a film unfold from the distinct perspective of two broken people, since that's a really, really pained way to look at the world. Yet it's just that kind of character-based narrative that makes Dead Man Down stand apart from the crowd. It's hyperbolically emotive, but it's supposed to be. While most movies about an upset in the hierarchical crew of a crime boss feel political in their underpinnings, Dead Man Down feels psychological. The high notes are Shakespearean in scale -- just think Hamlet, not King Lear.
However, it should be noted that this film is far from all drama and no crime. When things get shady, they get downright deplorable, and when things get intense, they get explosive, insane, and borderline over-the-top. But juxtaposed with the tragic emotion that surrounds those moments, they end up being well earned. After all, a character is capable of a lot when we see what they've been through, and that's just what you get with Dead Man Down.