When I saw DOMINO on opening day in 2005, I really thought it was the worst shit ever. In fact, at some point I earnestly added a “the worst shit ever” tag to my review of it. Tony Scott’s most chaotic ever visual style and editing just scraped against me and took me out of the story (to the extent that there was one), and I fixated on that and raged against it in my review. This had happened to me only a couple of times before: first with CON AIR, then ARMAGEDDON, and later it would happen with TRANSFORMERS and DOOMSDAY. But DOMINO is the most stylistically aggressive of any of those, and arguably the most pretentious.
In my review I said Scott was trying to seem young and edgy, compared it to getting his ear pierced. In my mind at that time he was the guy who directed TOP GUN, and TOP GUN was a movie for jocks, military lovers and top 40 listeners. When that one came out I didn’t notice that its style was revolutionary, I just knew everybody loved it including my entire sixth grade class, which meant it was the height of mainstream popular culture about a year or two before I would start kneejerk rebelling against such things. So to have the TOP GUN guy, almost 20 years later, trying to do what screenwriter Richard Kelly calls on the commentary track “punk rock,” was just a joke to me.
This may surprise you a little, or maybe not at all, but watching DOMINO now, for the second time ever, I had no problem with the style. Not my preference, sure, but not even really distracting, I don’t mind what he’s going for, some of it even looks cool. I’m happy to report that I no longer have hatred in my heart for DOMINO. Honestly I enjoyed the viewing experience, and for a while I even thought it was winning me over, just like MAN OF FIRE did when it inspired me to finally give this another chance. Ultimately I think DOMINO is too empty and full of shit to amount to much, it doesn’t overall work for me, for reasons we’ll get into. But I can still say I was wrong in my original review, because the things I was most mad about were superficial hangups of mine, things I just needed to get over. Tony Scott can get a fuckin earring if he wants to. Why should I care? I should be happy for him. He’s being a weirdo and having fun. Good for him.
If you’ve never read my 2005 review of DOMINO I present this link in the spirit of full disclosure, and with some amount of shame. It’s a style of cartoonishly over-the-top negative review that used to pour out of me sometimes, but that I don’t have much respect for now that I’m not young or angry, and try to be more open-minded and accepting. Some of it is kind of funny and accurate (like when I go off on Scott for doing reality TV satire six years after Ron Howard), some of it is very dumb and off base, some of it has aged poorly because I made some shock value jokes that I wouldn’t now and called the now departed and sorely missed Tony Scott “asshole” multiple times just because I didn’t like his movie at the time. May everyone live and grow long enough to think their younger self was a dipshit.
DOMINO is the “true story… sort of” of Domino Harvey, daughter of MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE star Laurence Harvey and Vogue model Paulene Stone, who grew up rich in London and then southern California, and worked as a model for a while but decided she’d rather be a bounty hunter. She’s played by Keira Knightley (Sabé from THE PHANTOM MENACE), who narrates to us the story of her narrating a story to an FBI agent (Lucy Liu, BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER). Somehow Domino and her bounty hunting mentor Ed Moseby (Mickey Rourke, YEAR OF THE DRAGON, PASSION PLAY), their partner Choco (Édgar Ramírez, POINT BREAK remake) and their Afghan driver Alf (Rizz Abbasi, one episode of Young Indiana Jones) got into a shootout in a trailer park, and are trying to get the loot from an armored car robbery by forcing some lady named Edna (Dale Dickey, HELL OR HIGH WATER) to decode the safe combination tattooed on a severed arm that belonged to her son Locus (Lew Temple, NO MAN’S LAND: THE RISE OF REEKER).
There’s no record scratch, but it’s the “You’re probably wondering how I got here” cliche. Domino skips back to tell about her upbringing and her entry into the bounty hunting profession – the fun part of the movie. She grows up privileged and pretty but would rather be spinning nunchakas next to the pool than floating in it. I like when she gets fed up with pledging for a sorority and punches a sister in the nose, and when she yanks another model across the runway by her hair. You’re not supposed to do that, I don’t think.
As in real life she meets her crew through an ad in the L.A. Weekly or something for a seminar on how to be a bounty hunter. Since it’s a movie though she finds the ad when it blows past her like a tumbleweed while she’s posing with a cigarette on an outdoor couch at magic hour.
But also since it’s a movie every single person at the seminar looks like an extra from a biker bar brawl, and when she walks in late and takes a seat they practically turn into cartoon wolves. Even future father figure Ed is seen checking her out and touching his lips in several shots.
I like the made-up touch that during a bathroom break she realizes it’s a scam, Ed and Choco are gonna run off with everyone’s money and not do the seminar, but she blocks their exit through an alley, throws her knife into their windshield and demands they give her a job. (She knows they’re real bounty hunters – in the narration she describes both Ed and bail bondsman Claremont Williams III [Delroy Lindo, also POINT BREAK remake – I’m not sure why they gave him a name so close to Clarence Williams III] as “legendary,” whatever that would mean in those professions.)
A big problem I had with the movie at the time, that persists now, is that I really do like the “Would you believe this unlikely person became a bounty hunter!?” hook that the movie seems to be so excited about at the beginning, but it doesn’t put in the work to depict the job in any kind of detail, or seem authentic about it, and then they mostly ditch the topic after a couple of montages. According to Scott on the commentary track, Kelly conceived the story while waiting at the DMV, so he made up this whole plot about a DMV clerk named Lateesha (Mo’Nique between SHADOWBOXER and FARCE OF THE PENGUINS, four years before winning an Oscar for PRECIOUS) who’s involved in counterfeiting driver’s licenses and also needs money for her granddaughter’s operation, so she and her friends rob an armored car (wearing first lady masks, do you get it, like POINT BREAK) belonging to a casino owner (Dabney Coleman, WARGAMES) and then they blame these college kids, not knowing their dad is a mobster, and…it’s complicated, I already forgot how it all works.
The bounty hunting comes in because Williams sends Domino and crew to capture the wrong “First Ladies.” They don’t know it’s so the casino owner’s guys can kill them, and don’t notice until it’s too late that these are people who were never arrested. Also nobody behind this crime seems to care that they chose the bounty hunters who are accompanied by a camera crew for a reality show that Domino agreed to do despite her “hatred of all things Hollywood” because she “wanted to some recognition in the world.” (In one of the movie’s funnier jokes, Domino always uses “90210” to describe the lifestyle she rejects, and then she ends up co-starring with two cast members of Beverly Hills 90210. At least she later turns the tables by taking them as “celebrity hostages.”)
I think the plot is way too convoluted, but at least it sets up a part where a college kid calls the scary mobster (Stanley Kamel, 8 episodes of Beverly Hills 90210!) and says very gravely, “Your sons have been kidnapped by these crazy game show hosts from the WB Network.”
Lateesha and her friends Lashandra (Macy Gray, SPIDER-MAN, THE PAPERBOY) and Lashindra (Shondrella Avery, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE), are literally called “the sassy Black ladies,” and I honestly believe it’s an attempt to comment on racial stereotypes or something, but I’m not convinced they pulled it off. Same goes for Alf, whose real name they refuse to learn how to pronounce, and who becomes a suicide bomber at the end. In fairness, these are all “good guy” characters genuinely fighting for the underdogs, but to me that doesn’t justify it.
The scene where Lateesha appears on The Jerry Springer Show to do a comedy routine about identifying as “Blacktino” and offering other cute names for different bi-racial identities is especially puzzling. I do like that afterwards her daughter chastises her because the plan was to promote a “progressive platform” about the healthcare crisis. I guess trying to fit a message into DOMINO is as silly as trying to promote it on Jerry Springer, but I can’t get mad at them if they’re trying.
There are some inspired details. I like that the mobster has a bubble under the surface in his swimming pool that he can swim into to have phone conversations without being spied on by the FBI. I like the randomness of having to meet at “the Sam Kinison Monument” outside the DMV in Needles, California, although I didn’t realize that was a mean joke because that was where he died in a car crash. I guess I now kinda like the great significance the movie tries to put on goldfish (for teaching young Domino not to be too attached to things) and a quarter that she stole from the collection plate at church and still holds onto for heads-or-tails purposes. But the whole thing is so smart-assy about everything that when all the sudden she’s crying and flushing a dead goldfish down the toilet as Tom Waits’ “Cold Cold Ground” plays it’s hard for it to have the emotional weight it was probly meant to.
Scott said DOMINO’s style was about “exorcising [his] rock ’n roll demons,” and evolved from experiments in two of his recent commercials. The script called the montages “Marlboro on acid” in reference to techniques he’d used on a spastic but beautiful cigarette ad, as well as a much more gaudy four-minute Amazon short called Agent Orange. DOMINO director of photography Dan Mindel (ENEMY OF THE STATE, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, SAVAGES) admits in a featurette that he was “frightened” of what Scott was asking him to do, which he describes as “hand-cranked cameras running backward and forward” causing “streaking and trail.” Scott says it involves “reversal stock with a cross-process” that increases red and grain, and reminisces about a shot that “was blown, but it blew in a really interesting way.” Though I don’t like all of this (I found Agent Orange almost unwatchable) I now enjoy seeing how excited Scott was to play around with this stuff. It’s better than if he was just punching the clock.
The movie seems to justify the style when Edna gives the crew coffee laced with mescaline, causing a wreck and sending them on a psychedelic vision quest in the desert, where Tom Waits pulls up in a convertible and declares Domino “The Angel of Fire.” In real life her drug experiences were less glamorous – she became addicted to coke and heroin that she was stealing from criminals, and tried rehab at least four times. She never saw the finished movie because she died of a Fentanyl overdose three and a half months before it came out. At the time she was under house arrest, accused of trafficking crystal meth (though she claimed she’d been set up).
Twelve years earlier, Scott had read an article about Domino, tracked her down, befriended her, and started trying to make a movie about her. He says on the commentary track that he’d had two other “good, accomplished writers” try writing it, but “they really wrote biopics about Domino Harvey, which was, in the end was about this English girl turned model who turned bounty hunter.” I guess that wasn’t what he wanted, so after being impressed by the script for SOUTHLAND TALES he recruited Kelly to interview the real people and then make up a fictional adventure for them.
Yeah, that explains the movie. They liked the premise of Domino Harvey but didn’t have a story. It seems like their attraction to her is as some kind of human bullshit detector, who refuses the “90210” life she inherited in favor of her own truth of nunchakas, throwing knives and broken noses. Kelly calls the movie “an interpretation, like a fever dream experience of Domino’s life” – a fancy way of saying it’s Hollywood bullshit. By including this Hollywood producer (Christopher Walken, THE COUNTRY BEARS) and the actual stars of Beverly Hills 90210 doing a reality show about Domino and friends he provides a symbol for the movie itself, admitting that it’s some Hollywood bullshit. Admitting but not absolving. And I still suspect that they think they’re making a point about something something blurred line media something, but I don’t know what that point is.
The blu-ray has some interesting extras on it, including a short documentary about the real Domino, audio from Kelly’s first conversation with her, and Scott’s recordings of story meetings edited as a commentary track. I was not surprised that in the interview Harvey has to explain the roles of bounty hunters and bail bondsmen to Kelly after he’s apparently already written the script, or that in the story meetings they often seem to be vaguely stabbing at ideas nobody was very clear on. Kelly seems very impressed with himself for the corny “BASED ON A TRUE STORY… SORT OF” title at the beginning, and in the commentary track he reveals that Scott wanted to put the character’s names on screen when they were introduced (which I made fun of as a tired cliche in my review at the time) because he liked THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. It’s cool to hear things like the moment Kelly realizes it would be pretty funny to show to stars of 90210 bloodied and handcuffed in an RV at the beginning and not explain what the fuck is up with that until later.
On the commentary track Kelly confirms that he had TRUE ROMANCE on his mind. That was also Scott making a slick studio movie from a script by a singular voice who had recently become an indie writer/director phenom. One difference is that TRUE ROMANCE was a solid script that went looking for a director to make it into a movie, while DOMINO was a movie that went looking for a script.
I think Tarantino and Kelly are opposites. Tarantino is a storyteller, a talker, a lover of language and the rhythm of speech. His scripts are full of people telling stories, telling jokes, doing monologues. He likes to find ways to play with chronology, or focus on the parts that would usually be left out of a story (Jules and Vincent wasting time until they’re supposed to go in and shoot a guy), or leave out the parts a story would usually focus on (the robbery in RESERVOIR DOGS).
Meanwhile, Kelly is less interested in stories, and more in abstracts – surreal concepts and images, left to interpretation. His approach is more like a painter splattering instinctively, or a poet creating provocative but ambiguous imagery with their words. When his movies are really working I’m not sure they’re expressing a specific idea as much as asking you to imagine one in between what’s provided. Whatever he meant by SOUTHLAND TALES, I doubt it’s what I got out of it, which is an impression of the world my mind creates in the space between signposts like “commercial where cars fuck each other,” “Kevin Smith as an old man in a blimp,” and “Sarah Michelle Gellar as a psychic ex-porn star.” In DOMINO the signposts are mostly “rich girl bounty hunter” and “reality show with Ian Ziering,” so there’s not as much room for your imagination to thrive.
I think Kelly’s approach is valid, and I like his movies, but I prefer Tony-Scott-fuckin-around-over-Tarantino’s-writerly-script to Tony-Scott-fuckin-around-over-Richard-Kelly’s-fuckin-around.
If you’re not looking for a tight story or coherent ideas, you just want to spend some time with these sweaty, colorful characters as they swagger through jittery, psychedelic L.A. and Las Vegas trying to have a little fun, and hopefully not getting their heads blown off, I can see how DOMINO could do the trick. Rourke, in the Robert Rodriguez portion of his comeback, before THE WRESTLER, is pretty fun to watch. I’m not sure the character has much more to him than being a crazy asshole who’s also a pretty loving friend/mentor, but maybe he doesn’t need to. I guess there’s the part where you find out he was a roadie and he implies he fucked Pat Benatar. Maybe we’ll get a prequel.
I’m less fond of Ramirez’s Choco, who spends almost the entire movie glowering at Domino, pouting when she wins “Bounty Hunter of the Year,” being angry horny, occasionally making a move and being furious when it doesn’t work out, then at the end they suddenly fuck in the desert and are in love I guess. I feel like the important parts of that relationship are missing. Maybe she just didn’t want to tell the FBI about any times when he was fun to be around at all. Except when he threw the TV at that frat boy’s BMW and then jumped off a roof onto it.
Whether or not Knightley captures the essence of the actual person, she’s fun to watch in the role, seems very dedicated to it, possibly even learned how to spin a few weapons. She’s all about chewing gum, wearing sunglasses, tilting her head back, getting in people’s faces, never flinching. If she looks tiny and delicate it’s all the more fun to watch her fearlessly tell people to fuck off. There’s a part where Brian Austin Green (Brian Austin Green, KICKBOXER 2: THE ROAD BACK, CHROMESKULL: LAID TO REST 2) tells her he knows “this whole tough chick thing” is an act, that she’s “just a scared little girl with some serious daddy issues,” so she breaks his nose. It plays like a “ha ha, fuck that guy” moment, but I kinda think he had her number. She’s spent her life trying to deal with shit she’d never admit, she buries it under all this posturing and posing, and that’s something we should have empathy for.
Or maybe that’s the wrong way to put it. Domino, at least the fictional character, is not a poser or a tourist. She grew up in boarding schools and mansions but she never felt comfortable there, that wasn’t who she saw herself as, she saw herself as the “tough chick” with the cool hair, the exposed bellybutton and the studded leather jacket, kicking down doors and putting shotguns in people’s faces (but never killing anyone, she says). I think Scott had a similar upbringing, and he says on the blu-ray extras that he related to Domino because they were both “adrenaline junkies” who enjoyed “touching those dark edges,” whatever that means.
In the end it didn’t work out for Domino Harvey, but I think people should be who they want to be, so I should extend that courtesy to the movie itself. If it wants to be this “punk rock” “Marlboro on acid” bounty hunter quasi-satire or whatever, more power to it. At least it’s unusual. I’ll get out of its way.