A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, R, 128 mins.
Domino Harvey: Keira Knightley / Ed Moseby: Mickey Rourke / Choco: Edgar Ramirez
/ Claremont Williams: Delroy Lindo / Lateesha Rodriguez: Mo'Nique
/ Taryn Mills: Lucy Liu / Mark Heiss: Christopher Walken / Kimmie: Mena Suvari
/ Lashandra Davis: Macy Gray / Sophie Wynn: Jacqueline Bisset
/ Drake Bishop: Dabney Coleman
"Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance."
- Sam Brown, WASHINGTON POST, 1977
Tony Scott’s DOMINO, more than any other film thus far in 2005, made me feel endlessly ill and nauseous. It was, in short, a never-ending shotgun blast to my senses that – not for one minute – had the decency to spare me of its audio-visual overkill. Is this film vile, repugnant, and disdainful in offensive ways that clashed with my sensibilities? Hardly. I will be the first to admit that a tremendous amount of professional polish went into this film, not to mention technical skill. However, the film is an unmitigated disaster and a festering mess not for its content, but in the very manner in which it presents the content.
This is a film equivalent to a life-threatening kick to my skull that devastatingly impaired my very wits, sanity, as well as my willingness to mentally and physical persevere. This movie wore me out - at only the 10 minute mark - with its mind numbing predication for narrative incoherence and excruciatingly dizzy film making techniques. After watching this film I felt like this was a work that (a) was meant for people with severe Attention Deficit Disorder, (b) was meant for those that worship at the alter of repetitive, grating, and exasperating editing and camera work, (c) was meant for those that like to be cinematically abused by the incessant self-indulgence of its director, and (d) all of the above.
DOMINO is a large scale, frantic catastrophe that tries to marry both fact and fiction (mostly more of the latter) into a would-be compelling, hip, darkly funny, and satiric film. The heart of this fiasco and festering muddle of absolute chaos is, I think, a compelling story about a female anti-hero (in this film’s case, a real life bounty hunter). There is no doubt in my mind that a truly invigorating work could have been made of this very simple subject matter. The notion that it is based on a real woman that was the daughter of a famous film actor that decided to drop her rich, posh super model façade and instead become a badass bounty hunter could have easily been made into compelling cinema.
On a character level alone, this film had endless possibilities to transfix me. In essence, it really is not the film’s content or concept that is the ultimate red herring of it's success – it's the ridiculously over-the-top and hyperactive MTV inspired direction of the material that burries any drama or valuable meaning that the film could have derived. For such a fascinating character like Domino Harvey, director Scott seems to have betrayed all that she could have been with his strident adherence to assault our senses with a style that could be aptly described as Michael Bay meets Oliver Stone on heavy dosages of crystal meth. Actually, with all of the cinematic tricks up his sleeve, Stone would have never made a film as eccentric, loud, crude, or maddeningly painful to watch as this one.
DOMINO frustrated me to no end. The film does have a great amount of talent on board – a great cast, a fairly respectable director, and a story that could have been compelling otherwise. Yet, the film is in a wasteland of wicked and perverted excess. It’s really “kitchen sink” cinema at its worst in the sense that Scott throws everything but the sink into his film. The whole work feels like some sort of repulsive, self-congratulatory pat on the pack for Scott, who seems more obsessed with showing the audience what he can do as a director.
Sure, he uses a lot of film tricks and slight of hand – frenetic and fast paced editing; hand held and craned camera work; various different styles of cinematography (he uses grainy stock, black and white, desaturated color, pixelized images, and everything from 8mm to 35mm film stock); fast motion and slow motion camera work; time lapse photography; non-linear narrative with flashbacks upon flashbacks; as well as a convoluted soundtrack that includes such eclectic stars as Frank Sinatra, Billy Ocean, and 2LiveCrew. Oh, if that was not enough, the film also utilizes voice over narration, two real life celebrities lampooning their own images, and Jerry Springer. So, yeah, everything but the kitchen sink. Basically, this film is far too ambitious for its own good. Actually, maybe the opposite is true. If it was more ambitious, then maybe the makers would have had the keen foresight to realize that less is far greater than more.
As for Domino Harvey herself? Well, if I follow this film correctly, she is a woman that is not a straight arrow, to say the least. Perhaps the film has no real idea of who this woman is…at least that’s what I gathered. Well, the film does have a highly dubious title card at the end that states “In Memory of…” the real Harvey, who just recently died. I find this kind of troubling, considering how the film portrays her. Domino, in Scott’s hands, is vile, repugnant, hot-tempered, nihilistic, and obsessively hard-edged and violent. Oh, but wait, she does have a heart of gold underneath her icy and carnivorous exterior because she does all she can to save the life of a little girl with a disease. Hmmm…this is obviously where the fiction meets the facts of this woman and from the superficial levels that she is exploited for dramatic effect, I sincerely doubt that she was a woman to be revered.
Okay, sarcasm aside – who actually was this woman? Well, for starters, the film is inspired (strong emphasis on inspired) by the real, late Harvey that Scott himself met a decade ago and, after their meeting, he desperately wanted to make her story into a film. Her life seems like the stuff films were made of. She was the daughter of Laurence Harvey (who gave the most memorable performance in the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) and super model Pauline Stone. She bounced around from school to school and even became a Ford fashion model and then she did what all jaded super models do – she decided to become a professional bounty hunter.
The real Domino Harvey died recently of an apparent pain killer overdose at the young age of 35. Did she “kick ass” as she once famously said in reference to her agenda in life? Maybe. Does the film have any insights? Not really. This film is as vaguely defined as the real Domino herself and it does go out of its way to say it's both fact and fiction. Sure, many of the details are probably true, or at least inspired by her life, but the film spends too much time weaving in-between reality and fantasy so much that even Domino - in her voice over narration - states that it’s “none of our business” what is real and what’s fake. Huh? What’s the ultimate point then? Does this film even care in the slightest?
Keira Knightly, who here again demonstrates what a chameleon she can be with taking on diverse roles, plays Domino in a good performance. The film gives us the bare details of her early life as a model and then the crucial moment where she sees an ad for a bounty-hunting course run by a bail bondsman named Claremont Williams (Delroy Lindo). His top hunters also help him out. There is Ed Mosbey (the always ultra-cool Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez). Of course, these men don’t seem to really want extra help, but Domino insists that they allow her to join. Why? Because all she wants to do is have fun, in a sly ode to Cindy Lauper.
Mosbey quickly sees why having a young chick like Domino might be good for business. His rationale, evidently, is that they will look really, really cool with a hot babe at their side. No one, obviously, will think they are losers. Domino does, very early on, prove her resourcefulness. When one crucial standoff with heavy firearms seems like it could end ugly, she offers one of the cronies a lap dance to save all of the men from death. Like I said…she has heart of gold.
However, the film has only just begun to get weird and clunky. It seems that Claremont has an enormously elaborate scheme up his sleeve, so complicated that I slowly began to clue out to its details as the film progressed. It involves getting $300,000 in less than noble means and, of course, Domino and company find themselves in the middle of all of the madness. To make matters worse, we get more antagonistic elements thrown at them in the form of a billionaire and the mob. There is also a degenerate TV producer of reality based shows named Mark Heiss, that is played by Christopher Walken in full-on Christopher Walken mode. You know, the kind of cheerfully decadent and overwrought performance that seems like he is doing a caricature of...well…himself.
Oh gosh, there is even more. To spice things up Heiss hires the former stars of BEVERLEY HILLS 90210 – Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green (played by the real duo) to host the reality show and they are as useless at that job as you may think. Then there is also Claremont’s lover, Lateesha (Mo’Nique) whose job proves valuable to all. Lateesha also manages to make her way on to the JERRY SPRINGER SHOW and…and…oh…skip it. Lucy Liu also makes a small cameo appearance as an FBI agent that cross examines Domino in the present regarding all that has transpired in the film, which occurs later in the narrative in flashbacks. I’ve officially gone cross-eyed.
It’s hard to discredit the actors in this cluttered debacle. Knightly is deliciously amoral in her performance here and, after playing such good and noble characters in BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, her turn as Domino is at least a refreshing change of pace. Mickey Rourke, an actor that I have simultaneously loved and loathed over the years, can thank SIN CITY and this film for rejuvenating his career as a tough as nails and ruggedly affable rogue. Walken is, as stated, amusingly Walkenesque. Out of all of the cast the two standouts are really Zierring and Austin Green, who should be given huge props for being incredibly good sports with mocking their own status as former teen idols turned out-of-work actors.
Nevertheless, DOMINO remains a completely maddening experience that annoys and feverously agitates more than it entertains. There have been great films that have been stylish about lowlifes – PULP FICTION andGOODFELLAS come instantly to mind. Yet, the fundamental difference with those films is that the characters and their respective stories shined through the performances and strong writing. Those films conquered their style with ample substance. Substance is utterly vacant in DOMINO, which is constructed, shot, edited, and presented with such depressing forcefulness that any investment in meaningful levels on our part feels redundant. The film is a hyper stylized, kinetic borefest that created such feelings of exhaustion in me that I just did not care after awhile. Watching DOMINO, with its rambunctious zeal for everything flamboyantly and visually assaulting, was like running those old eight minute runs back in gym class and then being told that they are going to last for two hours. The film is an exploitative endurance test to see what a normal audience member is willing to endure with the director obviously not caring if we will like enduring it.
Tony Scott, to his credit, has made good films. His 1993 film TRUE ROMANCE (written by Quentin Tarantino) was a vastly superior work about killers and crooks, and CRIMSON TIDE from 1995 was evocative and thrilling. DOMINO just may be his hedonistic waterloo as a director. His fetishistic glee with engaging in a near pornographic yearning to be as showy and excessive with his techniques ultimately destroys this film. I kept wondering how this film could have turned out if, say, screenwriter Richard Kelly directed his own script for this film. After all, he did make what I think is one of the finest films of the decade in DONNIE DARKO, a work that is equally exasperating, but more in terms of the ingenious impenetrability of its story and meaning. No, DOMINO is not a horrendous time at the movies because of its performances or script. It’s a work that implodes unreservedly by the overkill of its director, who fails at every turn to curtail his own tendencies. He just can’t seem to discipline himself at all in DOMINO and tell a story that has even a modest level of introspection. I mean, it sure is hard to get into a film when you feel you may have to check yourself into a hospital after seeing it for possible seizures. This film is dead in the water as an over stylized work that inspires motion sickness more than it does feelings of satisfaction and gratification.