A film review by Craig J. Koban July 4, 2019


2019, R, 89 mins.


Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Christian  /  Guy Pearce as Joe Martin  /  Carice van Houten as Alex  /  Truus de Boer as Photographer  /  Eriq Ebouaney  /  Younes Bachir as Miguel  /  Thomas W. Gabrielsson as Wold  /  Jacob Ulrik Lohmann as Cop

Directed by Brian De Palma  /  Written by Petter Skavlan

I fondly recall a time when seeing a Brain De Palma film reached event status levels for me.  

The stylish and acclaimed auteur made some of the most memorable films of the 1970s and 1980s in CARRIE, BLOW OUT, SCARFACE, and THE UNTOUCHABLES.  This led to a bit of a career slowdown in the 90s, and for every solid effort like CARLITO'S WAY and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE there were colossal misfires like THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, and his creative output in the subsequent decades was sporadic and inconsistent at best.  For a filmmaker that was once considered a master of mood and suspense, De Palma has unfortunately not crafted a truly memorable film since the mid-1990s. 

This, course, brings me to his latest thriller DOMINO (not to be confused with the 2005 Tony Scott directed film of the same name), which marks his first directorial effort since 2012's PASSION and demonstrates - with varying degrees of success - the filmmaker showing that he still has some juice left in the stylistic tank and, when given the right opportunity, is capable of orchestrating individual moments of hard hitting thrills that harkens back to his glory days.  In some respects, DOMINO displays many of the quintessential De Palma flourishes of yesteryear that made his work so iconic, nearly to the point where it could aptly be described as a fine return to form for him (as a revenge thriller, this is pitch perfect material that plays right into his wheelhouse).  Regrettably, stilted and problematic scripting kind of betrays De Palma's work behind the camera here, not to mention some behind the scenes drama (more on that in a bit), which is a shame.  Messy plotting and a rushed overall tone basically capsizes what's essentially a finely assembled and directed film by De Palma. 



I did appreciate, though, the non-American settings for this piece, which takes place in Copenhagen of the near future (2020) and introduces us to a pair of long-time cop partners in Christian (GAME OF THRONES' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Lars (Soren Malling), who beyond enforcing the law are the best of friends and confidants.  One fateful and violent night changes both of their lives forever when they're called to a seemingly random crime scene, which does lead to the successful arrest of a blood soaked suspect in Erza (Eriq Ebouaney).  Tragically, the criminal manages to free himself and, in the process, viciously slices Lars' throat.  Christian commits a major police officer sin in forgetting his firearm at home that night, which meant that apprehending the feeling suspect was next to impossible.  Feeling monumentally guilty about his friend and partner ending up in the hospital and on death's door, Christian takes it upon himself to seek revenge. 

Now, at this stage DOMINO appears like any other number of obligatory crime thrillers about cops seeking to avenge a fallen partner, but Petter Skavlan's script does manage to throw a few curveballs at audiences when it comes to Erza's plight on the run.  We learn that he's a member of ISIS and is actually hunted down and captured by a ruthlessly determined CIA agent, Martin (Guy Pearce), who hopes to blackmail the terrorist into working for him to capture a vile ISIS madman Al-Din (Mohammed Azaay), who's responsible for assassinating Erza's father.  Concurrent to this is Christian teaming up with another Copenhagen office named Alex (Carice van Houten), who wants to assist her grieving colleague in taking down Erza for good, but with the CIA also yearning to nab Erza and turn him into their own politically charged operative and weapon...things get extremely complicated for all. 

On a conceptual and visual level, DOMINO should appease many lifelong fans of De Palma's work, which displays the director's exquisite eye for editorial timing, meticulous slow motion, and camera compositions to help drum up undulating sensations of dread throughout.  De Palma seems attracted to the core themes of DOMINO, which have been reflected in many of his past films, like the nature of voyeurism, albeit with a terrorist twist, which comes front and center in one deeply disturbing sequence showcasing Al-Din orchestrated a mass murder spree at a film festival (one of his female disciples, completely radicalized, follows his every command via radio as she maliciously slaughters people on the red carpet, all while recording the events to be posted online later).  This sets up Al-Din as a frightening psychopath capable of perpetrating human suffering on a massive scale, which gives DOMINO a sense of forward momentum and a focal point for all of the other characters to come together later in the story. 

And De Palma shows great joy and aesthetic panache in other sequences in the film, like the aforementioned showdown early on featuring Christian and Lars trying to apprehend Erza, which culminates on a dangerous rooftop chase with Hitchockian vibes.  This early moment is bookended superbly by the film's climax, set in a massive bull fighting arena in Spain that could be ground zero for a horrendous terrorist attack by Al-Din that's about as nail-bitingly suspenseful and well oiled as just about any other third act that I've seen in a film this year.  Watching bravura set pieces like this - replete with cat and mouse foot pursuits, gunfire, fist fights and grapples, suicide bombers and drones - you gain an immediate sense that De Palma is reveling in the terror inducing spectacle of it all.  And like superb cinematic ringmasters, he's playing his audience like a violin, and DOMINO, as a result, feels organically constructed from the inside out in a refreshingly old school filmmaking mentality.  And it shows that De Palma most definitely has still got it. 

What DOMINO does not have, though, is a decent and cohesive narrative, and sometimes the police procedural elements do not flow together well with the terrorist and CIA subplots.  For a film that's just 90 minutes, DOMINO feels too jam packed and overstuffed for its own good, with enough endlessly compelling material here to make for a long form TV miniseries.   There are simply too many characters, too many storytelling detours, and not enough time running time available to explore every avenue to its fullest and most satisfying effect.  The terrorist characters in particular seem the weakest developed entities in the film, despite the fact the Erza is a potentially enthralling character being manipulated on multiple sides (he becomes motivated not only by radicalized pursuits, but also because of revenge - much like Christian - to take down the murderer of a loved one).  Then there's the whole nature of how this film's terrorists use streaming technology to record and then later broadcast the hellish actions at that film festival.  There's something compulsively fascinating and chilling about the voyeuristic impulses of these terrorists using technology and social media to spread their hatred of others, but DOMINO hastily introduces and then kind of discards it like an afterthought.   

DOMINO's production woes might provide some answers as to its scattershot nature.  It was shot in Denmark years ago and ran into a considerable amount of financing issues, which most likely led to the final product being slashed down to such a disagreeably short running time (there's been reports too that De Palma himself was not happy with the final product and is trying to distance himself from it).  The potential greatness of DOMINO is most definitely hinted at throughout, and its story delving into the horrors of Islamic terrorism and how one man is nightmarishly torn between many parties on both sides beyond his will has so much promise on a storytelling front.  But the unevenness and muddled nature of this erratically cobbled together film feels more like first cut material that desperately needed more finesse.  If you love De Palma past work, especially as an inspired visualist, then watching DOMINO will provide some fleeting satisfaction.  But as an essential, event worthy status picture from the legendary director, this one will mournfully be forgotten mere days after screening it for most of his most ardent diehards.

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