It really hasn't been De Palma's best century.
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by Petter Skavlan
Spoiler alert: moderate
There's a good movie somewhere in the vicinity of Domino, and maybe at one point that movie existed in its director's head, before he sat down to make it and, by his own report, spent the entire time hating every second of it. There are good parts, enough to remind you of the great director Brian De Palma used to be. But the only word for the whole is "stilted," from the absurdly bad performances to the hilariously mishandled story to the cheap VOD trashiness that practically vibrates off the screen while you're watching it. Domino feels more like somebody's first film than (I hate to say it) their last. I mean, I'll believe that the 79 year old's horror-inflected Weinstein biopic is actually getting made when it's out, and not one second before.
And I dearly hope the Master of the Macabre does come back to us, one more time. Until then, here's the occasional flash of the old stuff, buried inside a movie that its maker did for hire, appears to have had virtually no interest in, and then had taken away from him and cut to its barest bones by a distributor, who thereafter dumped it on the Internet to die.
It is, however, difficult to imagine any longer version being better. In fact, for all that Domino is not good and being longer would therefore make it worse, it's difficult to imagine a longer version even being more coherent than what's already here: the plot is modestly labyrinthine, as any political thriller should be, but it always more-or-less makes logistical sense, and to the extent it plays with phony emotions embodied by career-worst actors, it's almost certainly to its benefit that it blasts through that plot in just 89 fleet minutes. This even gives it the frisson of being a (maybe not even unintentional) comedy: as crystal clear as its mechanics are—it would be very hard for a movie this boilerplate to be even momentarily confusing—it's downright awe-inspiringly sloppy in so many basic little ways that movies made in the 2010s simply aren't anymore, but shitty pulp movies made in De Palma's hey-day could often be.
To fill out screenwriter Petter Skavlan's boilerplate, then, is our hero Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Copenhagen cop, so dear a friend to his partner Lars (Søren Dyrberg Malling) that he basically amounts to a son to him and his wife Hanne (Paprika Steen). We soon find the pair answering a domestic violence call that takes a turn for the unexpected, when they find a man—Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebounay, reuniting with De Palma from Femme Fatale)—with his shoes covered in (somebody else's) blood. Naturally arresting him, Christian goes inside the apartment to find not a battered wife but a scene of torture involving a greengrocer with a side business in international terrorism; however, while Christian's gone, Ezra slips his cuffs and, with a hidden knife, slices Lars' throat open. Christian gives chase across a rooftop and into the most dully prosaic of all of De Palma's dozen-plus homages to Vertigo, and when they both plummet to the street below, Christian maintains consciousness just long enough to see a pair of men-in-black with American accents whisk Ezra away. Now the story branches into two (roughly) co-equal halves that will ultimately collide: the first involves Christian and a new partner, Alex (Carice von Houten), who has her own personal stakes in the investigation, tracking Ezra down across Europe and beginning to realize just what kind of skullduggery they're dealing with; the second involves Ezra, a Libyan Copt on a mission of vengeance against ISIS in general and a particular ISIS cell leader in particular, the man who beheaded his father, Salah al-Din (Mohammed Azaay, and hole-ee crap, you thought about that name for all of about two fucking seconds, didn't you, Petter?). Ezra's found a new "friend," though, in Joe Martin (Guy Pearce), a CIA agent who's kidnapped the rest of Ezra's family just to give him a little added incentive, blandly promising they'll be released as soon as Ezra finishes the job he was going to do anyway.
It's basically an episode of any given television show about Islamic terrorism made since 2001, and hits most of all the same really tired points, and even it seems bored by its vague racism and an Islamist "sheikh" who talks some jihad-jabber about martyrdom not being the same as suicide, etc. It wins back a few points for being efficient, at least, but it's not really a worthwhile screenplay, except (potentially) as an excuse to hang setpieces off of, which is where De Palma comes in, sort of. But back to that in a minute.
There's something off about the whole endeavor, and one of the other ways Domino (and that's a terrible title, incidentally) feels like a TV show is the curious resort to some brutally digital cinematography, courtesy José Luis Alcaine. And Alcaine is not some Euronobody, either: besides De Palma's previous, Passion, and a personal favorite of mine in Blast From the Past, he's also shot a few Almodóvar films, notably The Skin I Live In and I'm So Excited!, and in all his newest you can see him reaching for a sharper and sharper digital image, a process that I expect reached its apotheosis here on De Palma's watch, with an almost gruesome saturation in the colors and daylight exteriors so ungodly sharp that it makes the cast look like YouTubers floating in front of a greenscreen. I guess that's a way of saying that it's not uniformly successful, though it almost resonates, given that one of the things that might've drawn De Palma to the project is the way it characterizes ISIS as, first and maybe foremost, a web-based content creator whose main line of business is in snuff films. (I assume that Domino is in conversation with De Palma's anti-Iraq War polemic Redacted, but since Redacted comes off like Casualties of War if Casualties of War had cost five dollars, I'm saving it for the BDP retrospective I'll bury this blog with, when I finally abandon it in favor of a more productive hobby, like spending more time with pornography.)
But there's less of this neat terrorist-as-auteur stuff than you'd think, given it's evidently the point of it all, and even in the material that is here, De Palma's vanishing budget badly lets him down: leaving aside the question of whether it's tasteful (unnervingly, it prefigures the form that mass murder took in Christchurch earlier this year), De Palma exercises his old splitscreen muscle with a two-camera set-up on a gun during a mass shooting at a film festival... which lasts about ten seconds, is staged with a palpable stiffness (not to say "borderline indifference"), and concludes with a suicide vest explosion that looks like somebody slept through a deadline, so they delivered an After Effects file they whipped up back in 1995, and the director didn't notice the difference.
It's not the only time that the movie is straight-up incompetent, and it's at least possible that Domino is kinda-sorta on purpose, because, after all, treading the line between a mastery of cinema and an intentional goofy-ass ineptitude has been the De Palmian way going back four decades. Some of his greatest films look and act like high-test thrillers, but also tap into a rich vein of frivolous, gonzo comedy that plays roughly with the formalism of acting and the conventions of Hollywood realism. It's arguably important (and not solely an artifact of making a movie in Denmark for a Norwegian screenwriter) that most of the actors are themselves Danish, playing Danes, in a movie set initially in Copenhagen, yet the movie is in English, with most of the principal cast employing clipped Danish accents that make them sound like they learned the script phoenetically, even though virtually anybody watching Domino would be so used to at least one of 'em—Coster-Waldau—speaking English so fluently (and with such a pleasantly-fake British accent) that they'd hopefully be forgiven for assuming he was an American.
And yet Domino is, at best, only the failure mode of something like Dressed To Kill or Body Double. (It's therefore a lot more akin to The Black Dahlia, which also makes choices that are so on-their-face-stupid that you have to assume they're purposeful. Though at some point, y'know, you just become what you're pretending to be, Bri.) It can be high comedy, but I really don't know: it never quite lets you in on the joke, if indeed a joke it is. A mid-film twist repositions Alex in such a way that it can't not be laughed at, when you realize that either von Houten was hilariously miscast or everybody else was, and (like much else in the movie) the proof of her particular pudding looks like a bunch of Photoshops; but maybe it really is just that shitty screenplay and the actors De Palma was able to put together. The difference between this and Body Double is that Domino isn't joyous about it, and obviously didn't have the time or money to fake any joy, either; so while Body Double has "bad acting," it's fun bad acting, precise bad acting, bad acting that always furthered the goals of the film. This, meanwhile, makes its two Game of Thrones co-stars look like they got cast for being pretty middle-aged folks in a mall, and barely one single line works throughout the Christian/Alex story, at least for any conceivable purpose besides recording sounds onto a hard drive. Pearce—who has the privilege of using his own accent and his own language—is probably the only member of the principal cast who does anything with his lines besides read the script (and I'm not exempting Ebounay, though at least he's fittingly broody), and while it's not a "good" performance, it's comically slimy, and it's at least the closest to what (I hope) De Palma actually wanted out of his cast.
But there are moments, anyway. Anytime De Palma brings back his ol' split-diopter tricks, I was glued to the screen, because I'm easy that way. And the climax really is vintage BDP, marshaling cross-cutting and slo-mo and those long serpentine tracking shots that have been his bread and butter since time out of mind, alongside a Pino Donaggio score (that, in honesty, has been great this whole time). At last, here our director is, in all his glory, finally managing to do something interesting and new with his ancient predilections, deploying a camera as a literal weapon in a grace note that ends a perfectly-thrilling setpiece with a perfectly-gory denouement. Ultimately, Domino isn't even an interesting failure—it's amongst the most minor of "minor De Palma," and, because I never learn, it's also a gutting personal disappointment—but it's still a step up from the outright aridity of Passion, and does have some of the goods in some of the places it counts. Which isn't completely nothing, right?