Tony Scott's Domino, a "sort of" true story about a Hollywood princess turned bounty hunter named Domino Harvey, is exactly the kind of thing that cultural conservatives have in mind when they complain about Hollywood's glamorization of immorality. It's also the kind of cinematic overkill that incense-burners have in mind when we complain about the hyperactive thrill rides that pass for entertainment in today's multiplexes.
Still, I have to confess that I rather enjoyed Domino in all of its repellent, nihilistic excess. I've never been a fan of Tony Scott, a slickster whose films typically have no more soul than the television commercials he makes between films. Man on Fire, his last movie, was the most depressing extirpation of two hours I've endured in recent years, being an unconscionable promotion of revenge killing. I've also never been taken with Keira Knightley, who stars as the title character with swagger, nunchuks and a Human League haircut. In such earlier efforts as Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates of the Carribean, Knightley has seemed little more than a waxen ingénue of the moment, but as Domino, she's refreshingly uninhibited as she struts around with sexually ambiguous, ball-busting glee.
The real Domino Harvey was the troubled daughter of flaky actor Lawrence Harvey (best known as the titular Manchurian Candidate) and a model named Paulene Stone. In Knightley's incarnation, Domino is a seething rebel who recoils from her Beverly Hills birthright, fails as a model and drops out of college (where she punches a sorority sister). Filled with unsated aggression, Domino falls in with a firm run by a dodgy bail bondsmen (Delroy Lindo) and starts hunting bail jumpers with partners Ed (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez). We learn that both men are ex-cons with violent, loveless backgrounds and bounty hunting is a moral free-fire zone that allows them to make a living while just barely staying on the right side of the law.
Domino is a self-conscious throwback to the mid-1990s fad for philosophical killers, byzantine plotting and appalling violence. In addition to movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, that era gave us The Usual Suspects, Natural Born Killers and Fight Club, and Scott himself contributed to this subgenre with the Tarantino-scripted True Romance. Likewise, Scott's new film straddles the lurid tabloid television satire of Natural Born Killers and the pessimistic critique of consumer culture found in Fight Club.
Although the film claims to be a biopic of a drug-addled, fallen princess, it's mostly a complicated heist movie in which our heroes--marginal characters all--manage to best the mob, crooked businessmen, spoiled frat boys, arrogant G-men and the DMV. Paternalistic guardians of taste may be horrified by Domino's celebration of underclass lawlessness, but I have to confess admiration for a film in which a not-so-law abiding 28-year-old ghetto grandmother named Lateesha Rodriguez (Mo'Nique) is placed on the side of the angels. I also enjoyed the nose-thumbing iconoclasm of seeing the film's central heist carried out by four robbers wearing oversize masks of Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan.
In Scott's hands, Domino is a movie that simulates the experience of watching an intricate heist flick while listening to hip hop, all while jacked up on a chemical stimulant. Most movies fitting this description--Mortal Kombat, anyone?--are unwatchable, but Scott and his production team have designed the images and sounds into a coherent rhythmic palette that enhances meaning rather than obliterating it.
While the scenes fly by in short bursts of dialogue, it's crucially important that the script, last credited to Richard Kelly of Donnie Darko renown, is an intelligent and witty one. If there's any point, any cultural meaning to be gleaned from Domino--other than its suggestion that many societal ills could be remedied with universal health care--it may be that it's a shoot 'em up that knows who the bad guys are. The most oppressive, truly dispiriting action movies typically take the perspective of the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon or the White House and serve to remind us of the enormous firepower that will keep us in our place. Domino, by contrast, is liberating in its anarchy in the way that Sam Peckinpah's films were. Like the world Peckinpah gave us in The Wild Bunch, Domino gives us a rigged society, and heroes who are obstinate and foolhardy enough to reject it.
The film closes with its heroine's hard-bitten credo: "There's only one conclusion to every story: We all fall down." That's what happened to the Wild Bunch, and that's what happened last June to the real Domino Harvey, when she was found drowned in a bathtub after taking Fentanyl, an intravenous anesthetic also used to dope racehorses. It's a credit to Tony Scott's film that, despite our knowledge of Harvey's fate, nothing in the film's largely fictional portrait of her seems false or sanctimonious.