Brian De Palma’s “Domino” was a troubled production story for the ages: underfunded, shot by the seat of its pants, and cut to ribbons without the director’s approval or supervision. But that’s the least of the issues with the final product. There’s little indication this low-rent, high-minded terrorism shlock ever had any hope of being a better film than the version now making its way to VOD and a few sad movie screens. Too much of the material is intact to suggest that some kind of late-career masterpiece has been lost along the way, and too many of De Palma’s fingerprints are still visible to believe that additional money or context would have yielded a substantive thriller that’s more than the sum of its parts.
On the contrary, the most damning thing about “Domino” is that it reaffirms what all but the filmmaker’s most deluded fetishists have long since concluded: The world has caught up with Brian De Palma — his fascination with voyeurism and violence have been sublimated into the stuff of everyday life — and the guy is basically just circling the drain. After all, few things could be more damning than a De Palma movie that has more references to his own work than it does to Alfred Hitchcock’s.
“Domino” boasts exactly one compelling idea, but it’s an idea that De Palma has done well to anticipate, and one that he explores with all his signature relish: This is a movie about terrorism as a burgeoning form of cinema, and about terrorists as a sinister new breed of filmmakers. Just ahead of its time when it was shot — and all too familiar by the time of its release — De Palma’s latest ruminative genre effort looks at how an old preoccupation is being transformed by new ways of seeing.
No mere riff on the power of propaganda in the digital age, “Domino” is rather a kind of cheeseball reckoning with a world in which physical violence has become secondary to visual violence, where the death toll of a terrorist attack can seem less important than how it’s disseminated. Primacy is subservient to virality; the theatrical experience is just a marketing campaign for streaming content. This may not be the future De Palma wanted, but it’s the one he’s been preparing us for.
However, it’ll take an enormous amount of goodwill for audiences to take that seriously, because “Domino” packages its director’s focal point inside layers upon layers of basic cable trash, even as it boasts a premium cable cast. Pointlessly set in the summer of 2020 (as if to declare its own prescience), the film stars “Game of Thrones” actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Christian, a Copenhagen police officer who makes the fateful mistake of leaving his gun at home when he and his much older partner Wold (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) respond to a domestic violence call one night. Instead of an abused spouse, the two cops find a cache of explosives and the mangled corpse of an unidentified man. They also find the blood-spattered killer, Ezra Tarzai (De Palma alum Eriq Ebouaney), who slashes Wold’s neck in a stairway brawl and flees from the unarmed Christian.
At the end of the “Vertigo”-inspired chase that ensues across the city roofs, Ezra is abducted by a black ops CIA team (headed by Guy Pearce), who have very specific plans for their new detainee. It seems that Ezra, hellbent on assassinating the ISIS unit that murdered his father, has followed the jihadists to Denmark in an effort to deal with them more efficiently than the American government ever could. And the CIA, instead of just saying “thank you,” has for some reason decided to kidnap Ezra’s family in order to force him to… do the same thing that he was already doing anyway? Whatever — the clock is ticking and terrorist attacks are imminent.
After Wold succumbs to his wound, Christian feels compelled to do some avenging of his own. Along with his grief-stricken new partner, Alex (“Game of Thrones” co-star Carice van Houten), the Copenhagen police officer begins to pursue the terrorists on his own, following them from one poorly shot Western European country to another as we’re left to assume that “jurisdiction” has too many syllables for a conversation about it to fit into an 80-minute film.
How the various plot threads knot together — or don’t — is proof enough that “Domino” has been desecrated somehow. De Palma isn’t exactly known for the clarity of his storytelling, but he’s never been quite this sloppy when left to his own devices. Scenes crash into each other like bumper cars, and the movie feels paced at random, leaving the consistency of Pino Donaggio’s swooning orchestral score to hold the movie together even as the music ignores what’s happening on screen (often to amusing effect).
The characters are just as messy, and all of them feel cut off at the knees. Christian is a blank page who almost never mentions his guilt over Wold’s death, and Pearce’s CIA agent sports a Southern accent so broad that it tips the entire movie towards satire (his only stated motivation is that he’s afraid that media organizations like Vice might report on America’s inability to thwart terrorists). Ezra is semi-compellingly caught between a rock and a hard place, but “Domino” couldn’t have any less interest about that; in a film where all of the white people are grieving heroes and all of the brown people are maniacal terrorists, the only black guy on screen is neither of the above or much of anything else — he’s a glorified plot point who occasionally gets to elbow people in the face. Ezra is unique in that it’s possible to imagine a version of this movie in which he’s an actual character worth caring about, but this is not the version.
De Palma makes his presence known at unpredictable intervals as “Domino” begins to assume form around his pet obsessions. You can feel him in the long zoom that locates Christian’s forgotten gun, and he’s unmissable in the flurry of split-diopter shots that — when compared to the ersatz versions recently seen in Richard Shephard’s “The Perfection” — serve as good reminders that De Palma is easier to criticize than he is to imitate.
And then, of course, there’s the violence. The movie’s first terrorist attack is also its most nauseating. In a massacre that would seem tactless and exploitative if wasn’t shot before the Christchurch mosque shootings were live-streamed on Facebook, a nervous terrorist attacks a film festival red carpet with a machine gun that’s mounted with iPhones pointing in each direction, allowing for a split-screen feed of both the killer and her victims.
In its own terrible way, this image, which is framed by a glaring “Femme Fatale” reference, is the natural endpoint of De Palma’s lifelong exploration into the space between committing bloodshed and capturing it on camera: The violence of the act is conflated between the barrel of the gun and the lens of the iPhones, and the terrorists — much like the film itself — are more concerned with the horror the attack represents than they are with the havoc it causes. In effect, the two are one and the same, though the truly laughable CGI used to galvanize that idea has a way of dampening its power.
Set in a half-empty Almería bullring the production wasn’t able to fill with extras, the film’s ridiculous operatic climax takes things to a higher level by introducing a drone into the mix, and we can only hope that life doesn’t imitate art at some point in the near future (drone-based terrorism is already a thing, but not quite like this). It might, of course. The trouble isn’t that “Domino” is bad, but that it’s unnecessary; now that we’re all living in a Brian De Palma movie, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to keep making them.
Saban Films will release “Domino” in theaters and on VOD on May 31.