||If you’re going to imitate someone, imitate the best; the result might not be as profound as the model, but it might have the good fortune to share some of its virtues, even if in more modest form. When actor Matt Dillon decided to write and direct his first picture, which he wanted to set in Cambodia (a place he’d visited some time before), he and collaborator Barry Gifford clearly decided, even if the credits nowhere say so explicitly, to follow in the footsteps of Graham Greene--an excellent choice. This darkly exotic thriller will probably remind most viewers of Greene’s “The Quiet American,” because of its southeast Asian setting. But the template for “City of Ghosts” is really “The Third Man”--another story of a rather callow fellow who goes to a dangerous post-war locale to discover what’s become of a past associate. The atmosphere of suspicion and betrayal the picture cultivates is similar too, and even the big twist near the close won’t come as much of a surprise to those who know Carol Reed’s classic. Of course Dillon and Gifford add elements that Greene wouldn’t have used--a rather bathetic father-son subplot, for example--and the British author, gloomy realist that he was, would never have countenanced the multiple happy turns at the close. (And he would have been quite right.) Still, though “City of Ghosts” can’t match its models, it takes us close enough to Greeneland to be a worthy homage and an impressive, though flawed, debut.
Dillon also stars as Jimmy Cremmins, the front man at a New York insurance company that proves to have empty coffers when a hurricane brings a pile of claims to the office. Jimmy pleads ignorance to federal investigators, but soon he flees to Thailand, where he’s been told his partner, Marvin (James Caan), has absconded with the dough. Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgard), an untrustworthy associate in Bangkok, directs him to Phnom Penh, where he takes a room at a dilapidated hotel run by volatile Emile (Gerard Depardieu). He also meets Sophie (Natascha McElhone), a British archaeologist who becomes his romantic interest, and Sok (Sereyvuth Kem), a helpful and honest cyclo driver who becomes an adviser and protector to him. In time Jimmy hooks up with Marvin, who’s in league with an inscrutable ex-general (Chalee Sankhavesa) to build a huge hotel-and-casino complex with the purloined insurance loot. But their irate Russian mafia investors track them down, and Kaspar’s loyalty proves highly questionable. A kidnapping and a botched murder are only two of the setbacks that follow.
The convolutions of the plot are obviously considerable, and they’re not always convincing. But what saves the picture--and this is something that’s often true of Greene’s novels as well--is the mood of pervasive seediness and duplicity it manages to create. Though Dillon’s directorial style might at times seem lackadaisical, its looseness, lack of flash and willingness to digress (one sequence involving a brothel is particularly intrusive) actually contribute to the suitably grubby, unkempt atmosphere. So too does the cinematography of Jim Denault, which catches very well the grittiness of the locales. Even the points at which the camerawork threatens to go too far in the direction of hand-held, on-the-fly grunginess recover quickly. The result isn’t an eerily beautiful film of the sort that Philip Noyce’s recent--and excellent--adaptation of “The Quiet American” is, but its comparative coarseness works well, too. One problematical technical element is the music, which not only sometimes seems curiously chosen but occasionally drowns out dialogue (the latter might be an aesthetic decision, but if so it’s a bad one, an unwelcome affectation in what’s ordinarily a more straightforward piece).
Most of the cast carry off their roles expertly. Skarsgard stands out, with his vaguely foreign mien, and the suave Sankhavesa comes across strongly as well. Depardieu has a ball as the short-tempered Emile, while Shawn Andrews makes a curiously powerful impression as a silent, spaced-out English youth who’s part of Sophie’s group. Caan easily evinces a gruff charm as the Harry Lime surrogate, and Kem the stoic imperturbability of the supportive Sok. Where things fall down a bit, unfortunately, is in Dillon’s lead turn. It’s difficult for even an experienced helmer to direct himself, and for a first-timer it must be an extraordinary chore; but although Dillon improves as the film progresses (the initial scenes in New York are the weakest), he never invests Cremmins with the psychological depth or complexity such a role deserves. (Compare Michael Caine’s performance in “American” and the lack here will be perfectly obvious.) Dillon should get credit for the attempt, but perhaps it would have been wiser for him to have declined to play the major roles on both sides of the camera--at least this time around.
Nonetheless you have to respect the actor’s decision to put his clout behind as serious and uncommercial a picture as this one, especially since shooting on location must have been very difficult indeed. It’s unfortunate that “City of Ghosts” goes soft at the close, and that Dillon’s central performance isn’t as rich as it might be. But if the picture doesn’t achieve the uncompromising quality of the Greene works it’s emulating, it doesn’t crudely denigrate them either. It’s well worth a look.