You do not have to squint very hard to see Brian De Palma in Domino. Not literally, mind you … he doesn’t usually take his Hitchcock fetish to constant-cameo lengths. But he’s there in the ominous zoom-in to a gun that a Copenhagen cop named Christian (Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has left on a chair in his apartment. He’s there in the sequence of Christian hanging perilously off a tall building’s breaking rain-gutter, chasing after the man who attacked his partner — a Vertigo reference writ large. He’s there every time Pino Donaggio’s score channels Bernard Hermann’s ghost while the cameras creep slowly around corners, or when, in a climactic set piece played out like a Carrie-level slo-mo car wreck, the composer cleverly riffs on Ravel’s “Bolero.” And he’s most definitely there whenever someone is framed through a far away window or via binoculars, as if they’re being spied upon, or via split-composed surveillance footage and smart-phone screens. No other American filmmaker has turned the two-way art of observation into such a cinematic obsession.
In other words: Yes, this thriller about Danish police officers chasing ISIS terrorists through two European countries is indeed a De Palma joint. A messy, uneven, heavy-handed, occasionally inspired, often insipid, steroidally stylistic De Palma joint, but one that fits the description in enough fits and starts to warrant the claim. The safari-jacketed gent himself has gone to great lengths to distance himself from a project that’s clearly been cobbled together at very little expense, despite the shady behind-the-scenes money moves; slapping “from the director of Mission: Impossible and Scarface” on the trailer, while technically correct, feels like false advertising. Whatever interest the 78-year-old “Master of the Macabre” has in this for-hire work does not revolve around Petter Skavlan’s script or the espionage-tinged narrative. As a potboiler, Domino is D.O.A. As a game of spot-the-auteurist motifs, however, this exercise in De Palma-reading is practically a gas.
The plot, as such, involves Christian going after a fugitive, Imran (Eriq Ebouney), who’s fled a crime scene and left a corpse behind. The dead body turns out to be a grocer who doubled as a go-between for jihadists and weapons dealers; guns, explosives and boxes of well-lit tomatoes litter his house. The killer has a personal reason for what he’s done. The C.I.A., in the person of Guy Pearce swirling a Southern accent around his mouth like a fine Cabernet, has an interest in Imran as a potential connection to ISIS cells. The terrorists that everyone’s hunting, meanwhile, have their own plans, etc.
Folks who are already missing Game of Thrones will be stoked to see Carice van Houten, a.k.a. the show’s resident witchy woman Melisandre, playing Coster-Waldau’s fellow detective with a serious grudge. Fans of Danish movies will high-five upon seeing Søren Malling (A Hijacking, TV’s Borgen) and Paprika Steen (The Celebration) show up, albeit without much to do. Fans of Spain will be happy to see the action eventually moves to Spain, because why not?
Hardcore fans of De Palma … well, they’re likely to be disappointed, or point to this as just one more piece of evidence that the artist who made Blow Out has, over the past decade-plus, irrevocably burnt out. There’s a tired aspect to so much of the storytelling in Domino; you can practically hear the man sighing from behind the camera every time he has to focus more on people saying things or feeling emotions. Better to just let him come up with spectacular moments like a red-carpet massacre streaming live over the internet and partially lensed to resemble a first-person shooter — the sort of trashy, borderline offensive, meta-exploitation sequence that feels like a specific directorial flex. Or the film’s big showdown at a bullfight, involving a bomb-fit drone — a killer camera, for those keeping score — and a Rube Goldberg-like series of actions that ends in creative gore. (Note to expendable bad guy: If it’s Brian, you’re baroquely dyin’.)
Or, in a perfect world, you simply let De Palma make a movie that’s worthy of its penultimate sequence, in which guns are fired and revenge is served and everything seems to coalesce into this sort vintage delirious pitch. That moment is, of course, then followed by an insanely corny coda that resonates with the sound of a thousand screeching record-scratches. This is Domino in a nutshell. Just when you want to outright dismiss it, a pinprick of sound and vision peeks through the straight-to-DVD dross. And just when you start to think someone’s starting to gin up that old black magic, the whole thing simply topples over with a loud thud.