“Dead Man Down” is Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s reward, I think, for making the original Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in 2009. This is how it works if you’re an offshore commercial filmmaker: One of your movies gets a toehold in the US market and then you’re invited to Hollywood to show what you can do with movie stars and several thousand rounds of bullets. The danger is that your talents may get lost in the translation, and so it is here.
But before this urban revenge melodrama falls apart in a clatter of plot absurdities and pretensions, it has its loopy charms. Someone is undermining the criminal enterprise of slick New York gangster Alphonse (Terrence Howard), and after a few false leads, the saboteur is revealed to be Victor (Colin Farrell), a glowering recent member of Alphonse’s crew. Why is Victor setting his confederates up for a bloody fall, and why is he mailing them jigsaw pieces of a mysterious photograph?
More important, what’s going on between him and Beatrice (“Dragon Tattoo” star Noomi Rapace), the emotionally and facially scarred woman whose high-rise balcony faces Victor’s? “Dead Man Down” early on announces its big theme — the difficulty of connection in an alienated modern world — and a shot of the two leads staring achingly at each other across a crystalline cityscape void raise one’s hopes. Could this be a genuine fusion of American genre thrills and European disenchantment?
If you think of the movie as a wrestling match (and why shouldn’t you, since WWE is one of the co-producers), the Euro half of the equation eventually gets a chair in the face. Victor’s scheme is complicated enough — one piece of it involves an Albanian thug held hostage for weeks in an abandoned tanker in the East River — without Beatrice blackmailing him for her own vengeful purposes. They’re killers but they’re also fragile wounded birds. This is one of those roles that Farrell acts with his magic-marker eyebrows alone (it’s like watching a game of Pong), but Rapace has a spooky, charismatic stillness to her. It’s an underwritten part, but the actress uses that to keep Victor and us on edge.
The script by J.H. Wyman steps deeper and deeper into narrative implausibility until you throw up your hands and stop giving the film the benefit of the doubt. Bullets fly, bodies plummet, a suburban castle gets destroyed in a lengthy climax, and apparently no police exist anywhere. Paul Cameron’s camerawork is luscious, though, and the director creates a bruised, moody vibe that holds longer than it should.
And we should really thank whoever is responsible for the most lunatic grace note in “Dead Man Down”: the casting of legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert (“Amour,” “The Piano Teacher”) as the heroine’s mother, a cheery, deaf shut-in who likes to bake cookies. When she tells Victor, “Sank you for returning my Tooperware,” the world briefly becomes a better, if much sillier, place.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.