Alarm bells go off the minute the film Domino announces, "This is based on a true story. Sort of." From Schindler's List to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, all films inspired by real people take factual liberties -- there's simply no way to encompass all of a life's complexities within a two-hour screen story.
But the weasely "sort of" at the top of Tony Scott's opaque action film calls its entire veracity into question. Domino derives from the bio of the recently deceased Domino Harvey, a showbiz princess-turned-bounty hunter. Though Domino features numerous characters based on real people, the film takes such bizarre, movie-ready turns that you question every bit of information it offers. Is Las Vegas really in Nevada or did they just make that up, too?
Played by Keira Knightley, Domino was the daughter of Laurence Harvey, star of such films as The Manchurian Candidate (which oh-so conveniently plays on a TV during the opening shootout). Domino rebels against her chi-chi lifestyle in London and Beverly Hills, and, despite stints as a sorority girl and a model, proves to be a weapons-obsessed adrenalin junkie with a violent streak. She gravitates to the underground lifestyle of bounty hunting: "I can live the nasty and not do time for it."
Despite the hyperactive editing and faux-hip stylishness, you can make out some intriguing details in Domino's first half. Domino partners up with veteran bounty hunter Ed (Mickey Rourke) and temperamental Venezuelan Choco (Edgar Ramirez), and the threesome's dynamic alternates from surrogate family to romantic triangle. Domino acknowledges some of the seedy realities of the criminal justice system, such as the importance of bail bondsmen and the DMV as an informational hub. The film even takes some comic tangents about America's racial melting pot that have nothing to do with the plot, but at least acknowledge some of this country's demographic complexities.
Domino starts its downward spiral when the bounty hunters sign on with a reality TV czar (Christopher Walken) and crew up with cameramen and celebrity hosts (including a former "Beverly Hills, 90210" star). Wouldn't you know, that coincides with an insanely complex heist/double-cross that involves the mafia, the FBI and thieves dressed like the former first ladies.
In the right hands, heists make compelling films, and Domino Harvey seems a ripe subject for a psychological study. But director Tony Scott seems not just disinterested, but actively opposed to narrative clarity or exploring human nature. Instead, he relies on weird angles, heightened colors and fussy frills like subtitles and a flow chart, turning Domino into one of the most cluttered films you can suffer through. Scott gets so punch-drunk on action-movie gestures -- trash-talking catchphrases, extreme close-ups of gun barrels and shell casings -- you suspect his highest aspiration was to make someone in the audience yell "Hell, yeah!" every five minutes. Knightley, Rourke and Ramirez might be doing some interesting acting, but you can't keep a fix on them long enough to say for sure.
Maybe a little steroid-driven cinematic style would suit Domino's own obsession with such a masculine subculture. But the plot becomes increasingly unrealistic -- at one point, a bounty hunter blows someone's arm off while Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)" plays on the soundtrack. You suspect that the facts of Domino's life came up short on Hollywood shoot-'em-up clichés, and were abandoned by screenwriter Richard Kelly in favor of mind games worthy of his film Donnie Darko.
Domino scores some easy satirical points off pop culture excesses like "The Jerry Springer Show," reality television, and has-been celebrities. But none of those things are as bad as Domino, with its glorified violence, distorted facts and half-hearted gestures of profundity. When the characters unknowingly take mescaline in a desert, and then Tom Waits turns up as a crazy preacher offering the key to redemption, Domino becomes more than just an unsuccessful movie -- I dunno, "shit storm" seems the only apt synonym.
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