REVIEW: Domino [2019]

Rating: 2 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 89 minutes
    Release Date: May 31st, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Saban Films
    Director(s): Brian De Palma
    Writer(s): Petter Skavlan

Nothing works like vengeance.

Director Brian De Palma made a wise decision distancing himself from the long-awaited release of Domino. Not only was it a troubled production he admits was ruled by unprofessional Danish producers that didn’t pay people on time (if ever), but he also didn’t write the script (that credit goes to Petter Skavlan, someone who should disavow it too considering the original 148-minute cut was reduced to a paltry 88). All this adds up to a poorly edited, badly-scored shadow of what a De Palma thriller should be and thus a blight upon an already divisive collection of later films he is willing to stand by. But none of this is why I call his stance smart. No, he needs to run away because of its very problematic politics.

Without watching the original cut, however, we can’t know if De Palma actually condones the film’s portrayal of Muslims and People of Color as nothing more than terrorists and/or operatives to be used and abused. Did the post-production hack job excise crucial bits of context that stopped the whole from being a nasty little example of how white Scandinavian lives are worth more than those of refugees? Or did it simply leave out even more depictions of that central theme? I truly hope it’s the former, but ending everything on an ISIS snuff film with a suicide bomber mowing down red carpet attendees at a film festival as though Domino‘s intent is to sow the exact same fear real videos of that ilk create gives me pause.

It’s a weird sequence to include considering the main narrative thrust follows police officers Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Alex (Carice van Houten) as they track down the ISIS leader orchestrating these attacks (Mohammed Azaay‘s Salah Al-Din). I’m going to spoil things now (although it shouldn’t be a stretch to guess this is how things end) by saying they ultimately succeed. So you show them working hard to accomplish this goal and yet the supposed high of victory can’t land before we cut to the reality that someone always takes a fallen terrorist leader’s place to carry on their warped mission. The film isn’t therefore only inciting fear. It’s also rendering everything we’ve watched moot. All the sacrifices endured were wasted for reasons we’ll never know.

Why won’t we? It’s because I’ve described Christian and Alex’s mission above in alignment with the endgame rather than their own motivations. They aren’t hunting ISIS at all. No, their fight is with the man (Eriq Ebouaney‘s Ezra) who put Christian’s partner (Søren Malling‘s Lars) in the hospital. It’s Ezra who’s conversely looking for Al-Din as a result of a personal vendetta and eventually also as the victim of a blackmail ploy by CIA agent Joe Martin (Guy Pearce). So one team is looking for one person who’s looking for another person until everyone ends up in the same city to get revenge, seek justice, and/or save hundreds of lives. I put that third one last on purpose since it’s definitely the least of anyone’s worries.

Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be, though, considering how little time is spent on these other tangents. It’s not long into the action that Christian and Alex shift their focus onto Al-Din (the climactic set-piece during a stadium bull-fight is of these three caught in a laughable attempt at cat-and-mouse suspense), yet Ezra and Martin are still given screen-time every once in a while to pretend they’re equally as important. They aren’t. They’re loose ends that come back into the fold later and thus can’t be completely forgotten despite the film embracing their expendability. If things actually were about ISIS rather than the feigned emotional intrigue of the drama surrounding Lars (including a hollowly written affair), they might have been able to overcome their otherwise plot-driven two-dimensionality.

I unfortunately must call this into question too since Coster-Waldau and van Houten aren’t exempt from being left out to dry by the editing process either. Their potentially poignant moments of gut-punch revelations arrive with static shots of expressive faces going through what look to be community theater exercises that the camera just happened to catch. I’m talking about the sort of ham-fisted performances ripe for unintentional laughter—stuff that might have been excused if everyone wasn’t merely thrown together to advance the story without a single shred of nuance. Why should we buy any of it when we can’t figure out what the stakes are at any given moment? Will Christian lose his job? Will Alex find firm footing? Will Joe become anything other than a MacGuffin?

It’s a real shame as some sequences have that vintage De Palma style: split-diopter imagery, slow push-ins, and even some tech-based split-screens courtesy of an automatic rifle fitted by ISIS propagandists with a recording scope and a second camera facing back to simultaneously depict the shooter and her victims. Where the suspense he conjures works at the beginning (Christian and Lars’ initial run-in with Ezra) despite the somewhat campy reaction shots, it’s ruined later on once bare-minimum narrative clarity replaces style and impact. You can tell De Palma was working a slow burn with multiple strings to pull before the producers turned it into a race with staccato beats that seem to want our investment dissolved so as not to care about how many details are left unresolved.

Maybe we’ll eventually get to see what should have been, but until then my recommendation is to stay far away from what is. The cheap melodrama pushing personal priorities above collective wellbeing and dangerous politics condoning a Trumpian disgust for refugees entering Scandinavia has no place in today’s world other than to incite additional violence. When you have the sole “good guy” Muslim (Ardalan Esmaili‘s Omar) cracking jokes at his religion’s extremist expense before his boss (Thomas W. Gabrielsson‘s Wold) tells Christian and Alex to not get on his bad side (wink, wink), the benefit of the doubt becomes nonexistent. The film declares the CIA as shady but necessary and the families of POC unworthy of even being spoken about alongside those of white knights with badges.

[1] (L-R) Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Christian, Eriq Ebouaney as Ezra Tarzi and Søren Malling as Lars Hansen in the thriller DOMINO. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
[2] (L-R) Guy Pearce as Joe Martin and Eriq Ebouaney as Ezra Tarzi in the thriller DOMINO. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.
[3] (L-R) Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Christian and Carice van Houten as Alex Boe in the thriller DOMINO. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

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