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In Theaters/On VOD: DOMINO (2019)

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DOMINO
(Denmark/Belgium/Netherlands/Italy/
UK/France/Spain - 2019)

Directed by Brian De Palma. Written by Petter Skavlan. Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Carice van Houten, Guy Pearce, Eriq Ebouaney, Mohammed Azaay, Soren Malling, Paprika Steen, Thomas W. Gabrielsson, Emrin Dalgic, Illias Adabb, Helena Kaittani. (R, 89 mins)

As anyone who saw George A. Romero's final film SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, or John Carpenter's last film to date, THE WARD, or Warren Beatty's RULES DON'T APPLY, or nearly everything Dario Argento's done for the last 25 or so years, or observed the multi-decade downfall of Tobe Hooper can attest, great filmmakers often lose their way as time goes on. It can be due to a variety of reasons--from getting stuck with journeymen gigs, to an inability to get the financing they need to do the projects they want, or simply losing their mojo and coasting on their reputation and name value (or, in Beatty's specific case, being away from the game for too many years). With the exception of 2007's REDACTED, his unsuccessful attempt to replicate CASUALTIES OF WAR in an Iraq War setting, the legendary Brian De Palma has been bankrolled almost entirely by foreign backers since 2002's French-produced FEMME FATALE. There was a time in the early '80s--that incredible streak of DRESSED TO KILL, BLOW OUT, SCARFACE, and BODY DOUBLE--when De Palma, one of the most visionary and stylish American filmmakers of his generation, was absolutely on fire. His dazzling, hypnotic set pieces, the split-screens, and the intricate timing and choreography were uniquely his own even as he constantly paid tribute to Hitchcock. He also demonstrated an ability to handle commercial hits like THE UNTOUCHABLES and the first installment of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise. Now 78, De Palma works sporadically enough these days that each new film still qualifies as legitimate event for those disciples who've followed his career dating back to the late '60s (and if you haven't seen Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's 2016 documentary DE PALMA, you must). DOMINO, a seven-country co-production and De Palma's first film since 2013's PASSION, was shot back in 2017 and is only now getting a stealth VOD burial from US distributor Lionsgate. This comes a couple months after the trailer went online, prompting De Palma to disown the released version, which he claims was taken from him by the film's Danish financiers--the primary backers of the project--who cut it from 148 minutes down to a bare-bones 89. De Palma's name is still on the film, though other than a few scattered deployments of his signature split diopter shots--which everyone does now in homage to him--the severely-compromised DOMINO never feels like a De Palma film until the climax, and even that is so gutted and badly-assembled that it plays more like someone trying to rip off De Palma and blowing it.






Set for no reason whatsoever in "June of 2020" and headlined by two GAME OF THRONES stars (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Carice van Houten), DOMINO was intended to be a topical thriller addressing issues in the war on terror and government surveillance, but in its current state, it's just another run-of-the-mill VOD thriller that's completely devoid of suspense and almost all sense of its maker's style. Coster-Waldau is Christian Toft, a Copenhagen detective and recovering alcoholic whose absent-mindedness (he left his gun at home) leads to his partner Lars Hansen (Soren Malling) having his throat slashed by a suspect during a botched arrest and falling into a coma. The suspect is Libyan immigrant Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney, memorable as "Black Tie" in FEMME FATALE), who was trying to escape an apartment building where he just tortured and killed Farooq Hares (Emrin Dalgic), a member of ISIS who was stockpiling guns and military-grade explosives. After a strangely unexciting chase along steep rooftops with loose clay shingles (during which Toft loses the gun Hansen let him borrow) that finds both men falling into a convenient vegetable cart on the street below, Tarzi is whisked away by a crew of CIA mystery men led by smirking agent Joe Martin (Guy Pearce). Martin is after ISIS leader Salah Al-din (Mohammed Azaay), who's also the man who executed Tarzi's father. This prompts the CIA to form an unholy alliance with Tarzi as Martin gives him a new identity as a Jordanian diplomat with instructions to terminate Al-din. Meanwhile, Toft is assigned a new partner in Alex Boe (van Houten) as the two hunt down Tarzi and end up on a globe-trotting trek throughout Europe, as the search for Tarzi and Al-din dovetails, leading all parties to Spain where ISIS is hiding in plain sight under the auspices of a tomato distribution company, with a team of suicide bombers plotting to take out an Almeria arena during a bullfighting event.


Even with the closing credits rolling at the 82-minute mark (and misspelling Coster-Waldau's co-producer credit as "Nicolaj Coster-Waldau" after spelling his acting credit correctly), DOMINO is a laborious, convoluted slog that never manages to catch fire. Some of this is obviously due to it losing an hour of its running time and the effect that had on its storytelling rhythms and any kind of characterization or nuance, essentially reducing it to something that could pass as a lesser Jean-Claude Van Damme outing. But even taking that into consideration, this has the look and feel of the kind of cheap, made-for-cable TV series that you'd see in late-night syndication in the '90s. De Palma's bravura style is instantly recognizable even in his hired-gun gigs, but for all he brings to this, it may as well have been directed by Keoni Waxman or Brian A. Miller. PASSION was inessential De Palma but it was at least unmistakably the work of Brian De Palma. Only during the impending Almeria arena suicide bombing does that old magic finally make an appearance. Initially, it's such a relief and comfort to see something definitively "De Palma" that fans will feel giddy at the prospect of a classic De Palma set piece about to happen, but it's so truncated and sloppily pieced together that you're almost instantly back to crushing disappointment.


De Palma claims this wasn't his project and that it was given to him by the Danish producers who never had enough money and were constantly cutting corners, even calling it the most miserable experience he's ever had on a movie, and that's from the guy who made THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. For all the different sources of finance that went into getting this made, it looks incredibly cheap and shoddy. The CGI is total amateur hour, whether it s a bit of splatter just freezing and pausing in the air as a victim flails backwards (and no, it's not a "De Palma thing"), or an ISIS decapitation that looks like something out of an Asylum joint. A terrorist attack on a Netherlands film festival, seen via a split-screen livestream on the internet, is absolutely atrocious in both its bungled execution and in how it reveals that De Palma has no idea how livestreaming works. De Palma can't get anything right here, especially with one of Pino Donaggio's most uninspired scores that's not only distractingly intrusive but also generously cribs from Ravel's "Bolero" for the finale, which only serves to reiterate that FEMME FATALE will likely go down as De Palma's last great film. Yes, it's clear that DOMINO had a troubled production but what's here is a depressing reminder of so many great filmmakers before him who have just lost a step and aren't what they used to be. It's insulting that someone of De Palma's stature and influence has to schlep this far beneath his standards to land a gig. There's no shame in bowing out gracefully and going the elder statesman/lecture circuit route in one's emeritus years, but at the same time, a lot of people wrote off Paul Schrader after a long string of misfires and problem-plagued shoots and he came back hard with 2018's FIRST REFORMED. Here's to hoping De Palma has one more great movie in him, because DOMINO is a total embarrassment.

Brian De Palma and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on the set of DOMINO




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