The director behind 'The Untouchables,' 'Carrie' and other modern classics pays homage to himself ... albeit badly.
Brian De Palma’s “Domino” begins in Copenhagen, and for no apparent reason, in the barely-distant future of “June 10, 2020.”
An investigation between two cops, Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Lars (Soren Malling) takes a tragic turn and unveils an ISIS terrorist plotting an elaborate attack.
At this point, I should mention the tomatoes. There are lots of tomatoes in “Domino.” A major set piece lingers on a crate of tomatoes, our hero is saved by falling into a pile of tomatoes, weapons are concealed in tomatoes and there’s even a chase with a truck carrying tomatoes.
It’s as though De Palma, sensing what the critics’ reaction to his movie was going to be, decided to just beat us to the punch. Or, he simply armed himself with tomatoes of his own to hurl back at audiences.
Being assigned to review the new De Palma thriller was among the most exciting gigs of the year for me. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to report that this is, by far, the worst film I’ve seen so far in 2019. It is, with very few unworthy contenders, the least in De Palma’s filmography but, just by itself, a work so laughable and hideous, it makes recent turkeys like “Replicas” and “Serenity” seem tight and competent in comparison.
Initially, “Domino” is simply frustrating in its conventional storytelling. We’ve seen this kind of movie countless times before. In fact, it feels like one of those lower-end, post-9/11, social commentary-laden dramas from 2007 that struggled to mix action and relevance (like “The Kingdom,” “Rendition,” “In The Valley of Elah,” all of which are still superior).
With its terrorist villains (who are filmed in ways to look as “monstrous” as possible) blandly self righteous heroes, globe-trotting locations and race-the-clock attempts to thwart a bombing, it reminded me of the kind of yarn that was mocked by the brilliant “Team America: World Police.”
Being a lifelong De Palma fan (both a true devotee and a happy apologist), I mostly ignored the plot (as did the screenwriter) and looked at the visual approaches and possible connections to his past work.
One kitchen scene is shot in the same warm tones as “The Fury” and a character is filmed with large crucifixes hanging in the background – both foreshadowing and perhaps a nod to “Carrie” (?).
There’s a shot in which the camera lingers on a neglected firearm during a bedside frolicking, with a painfully slow close-up that reminded me of the final shot in “Snake Eyes.” As the film progresses, this sort of self referencing becomes depressing, as, at best, this is De Palma doing De Palma doing De Palma, in the way Michael Keaton is warned about making inferior multiple copies of clones in “Multiplicity.”
In fact, the opening crime scene investigation, with the hero’s partner slain, is a lot like the climactic scene in the De Palma rip-off “Basic Instinct,” only nowhere near as good. When you can’t even reach the unapologetically trashy heights of “Basic Instinct,” itself a cribbing of De Palma’s “Dressed To Kill,” you know you’re in trouble.
The first big set piece (a pursuit on the side of the building that ends with the aforementioned tomatoes) moves at such a sluggish pace, the slow motion utilized gives us the impression we’re watching the movie underwater.
Other major problems that pop up immediately – despite a good ensemble cast – is that the actors don’t register. Pino Dinnagio’s rotten score sounds like reheated leftovers, with lots of Middle Eastern sounds used for creating a sinister effect.
One sequence is set during the Netherlands Film Festival, in which a massacre takes place that a terrorist films in real time. De Palma’s creating such a sequence suggests a mirror to the opening of his trashy, dazzling “Femme Fatale.” Yet, what transpires looks like a subpar knockoff of a first-person shooter video game, as that’s how the attack is filmed.
FAST FACT: Brian De Palma’s first co-directing credit, 1969’s “The Wedding Party,” featured then-unknown actors Robert De Niro and Jill Clayburgh. The movie wrapped roughly six years prior to its release but earned a theatrical debut when its stars careers began to rise.
Another low point (or, if you’re a fan of movies so-bad-they’re-almost-good, a highlight) is a maudlin subplot involving a deceased loved one. We see a series of obviously-staged cell phone pictures, meant to invoke warm and fuzzy memories of a character we barely knew, played by an actor who, at that point, had exited the movie long ago.
The lone example of competence is Guy Pearce’s sharp turn. He’s playing a CIA agent with a Southern accent he underplays but pushes to make the point of American entitlement. Although Pearce’s role is strictly in the supporting mode, he registers strongly (and appears to be having fun) whenever he appears.
Yet, the use of his character to suggest a satiric angle is even more muddled here than when Russell Crowe played the same sort of suit and tie jerk in Ridley Scott’s middle-of-the-road “Body of Lies.” The most pointed political line in “Domino” is “We’re Americans…we read your e-mails.”
So much for savage political commentary.
There’s hope for De Palma. Filmmakers of his caliber are always just one movie away from a major creative comeback. After all, De Palma once followed up the disastrous “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” with the spellbinding fright fest “Raising Cain,” the exemplary gangster thriller “Carlito’s Way” and the first “Mission: Impossible,” an improbably elegant summer blockbuster.
He’s still got it but man, he doesn’t need a straight-to-the-bottom of the five-dollar DVD bin rotten tomato like this.
If “Domino” was at least fun, it could have provided some creative leverage. Think of how his recent “Femme Fatale” and “Passion” both elicited a true joy of filmmaking and playfulness that counter-balanced a superfluous presence in De Palma’s body of work. Here, brutal scenes of beheadings (viewed as online videos but still graphic) and a heavy-handedness the movie never truly earns adds an “ick” factor when the director should have stuck with cheap thrills.
As a film in the sub-genre of Stop-The-Next-9/11 potboilers, it’s very late to the party. “Domino” never approaches the highs of “The Sum of All Fears” or, sadly, the lows of “Bad Company.”
I did learn an extremely valuable lesson from this movie: there is no better way to stop an ISIS terrorist attack than with a swift kick to the testicles. This scene alone is why I’ll always remember “Domino.”
Half a Star