At the Movies

Dead Man Down Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
Oz the Great and Powerful Directed by Sam Raimi


In an odd coincidence this week, after a screening of “Dead Man Down,” I was pondering its release alongside “Oz the Great and Powerful” and also recalling the “The Wizard of Oz” and its three characters in search of courage, brains, and a heart. Much to my surprise, “Dead man Down” which had looked like a fairly run of the mill action film in previews, actually has all three.


Having said that, it’s not a fantastic film, and it has some problems, but it’s far more interesting than I was expecting. It’s directed by Niels Arden Oplev who directed the original Swedish adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and here he reteams with Noomi Rapace, who stars alongside Colin Farrell. The screenplay is by J.H. Wyman, whose last produced feature screenplay was for 2001’s “The Mexican” with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts – having worked since then in TV, primarily producing and writing on “Fringe.”


Farrell stars as a man working with, but apparently not entirely beholden to, a rather undefined (or perhaps poorly defined) criminal organization. He lives in a high rise apartment, with windows facing the apartment of Rapace’s character and they have an awkward relationship which initially consists of tentatively waving to each other.


In the early parts of the film, each of their motivations remain largely unclear – she has suffered facial disfiguration from a car accident and he seems to be a bit of a fish out of water working as a gun-toting thug. On a couple of occasions, I found myself expecting something else to happen, not because the film is attempting to throw twists and turns at the audience, so much as that the pacing early on always seems very slightly off. Or the pacing is perfect in the sense that it does keep you second guessing yourself and that may be the intent. But it’s unusual and somewhat interesting, for example, to see a character go from a bloodbath shootout to eating a noodle bowl and vacuuming his apartment – and yet even criminals have a home life and, presumably, spend several hours a day not being criminals.


I also found myself questioning the pacing in “Oz the Great and Powerful.” It starts with James Franco’s Oz as a small time traveling carnival magician whose shenanigans catch up with him just in time for him to attempt escape in a balloon as a tornado approaches – whereupon the storm whisks him away to the magical Kingdom of Oz. The balloon ride itself seems largely an excuse to toss around objects, and Franco, in a way that will exploit the 3D imagery being employed, and Oz is like a compendium of the earlier film’s visuals mixed with every movie about a lost valley or a land lost in time.


All of the elements one expects are there: Good witches, wicked witches, flying monkeys, munchkins, etc. – with the notable exception of music. Here we have a film that isn’t a musical telling us a similar story to the narrative of the stage musical “Wicked” and fulfilling the onscreen role of prequel to one of the great musicals of all time. Which isn’t to say that it should have been or needed to be a musical – but it happens to feel like a musical that’s had its songs pulled out. And, at 130 minutes long, it’s 29 minutes longer than “The Wizard of Oz” (although credit rolls have become far longer) without that movie’s recurring injection of upbeat happiness every time somebody burst into song. So, for me at least, it just felt longer than the relatively low energy could sustain. It’s cute and occasionally quite funny – but it just seems to keep plodding along without any great high points to lift itself out of a relatively mundane storytelling exercise about a non-wizard, set against a backdrop of actual visual wizardry (although I’d be quite happy to never see another film in which characters run over natural stone archways that crumble under their feet).


Which brings me back to courage, brains and heart – three things I wasn’t expecting to find more of in “Dead Man Down.” It’s a story that kept me engaged and it has far more nuance than any of the recent actions films from the Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Willis crowd (not that they are known for nuance). Farrell and Rapace both play damaged characters whose actions are grounded in deep loss and anger and there’s enough intricacy to the plot to keep it interesting despite flaws, such as the almost complete lack of a police presence through most of the movie despite groups of armed men strolling around.


“Oz the Great and Powerful” is clearly a more child-oriented film than “Dead Man Down” but I can generally get myself into a child’s frame of mind and enjoy a kids’ movie on the level it was intended to be enjoyed. Yet I find myself wondering if tinier butts than mine will shift around in their seats as much as I did through what seemed like an excessive running time – or whether 3D flying fanged baboons are a little too scary for a PG movie. That said, when I was a similar age, we sat through 144 minutes of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” with one of the creepiest villains ever in the form of the child catcher. But that was another film that kept injecting oodles of energy in the form of songs I still remember 40+ years later – and attention spans weren’t quite such an endangered species.


My sense is that I’m probably going against the critical crowd here in recommending “Dead Man Down” for those who enjoy an action film that has more going on than just an excuse to rack up a spectacular body count. But I found myself genuinely enjoying the story I was being told and the character development employed in that telling. In comparison, the very differently targeted “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a visual treat for children, and adults who like shiny things, but I suspect that the pacing and running length will result in many chaperoned trips to the bathroom for tiny viewers and a desire amongst some older viewers to watch (and sing along to) “The Wizard of Oz” instead.

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