It’s really hard to watch “Domino”–not simply because the young woman on whose life it’s based died recently of a drug overdose (accidental, it’s been decided), but because as written by Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko”) and directed by Tony Scott, it’s a raucous mess, constructed and edited with such crazed intricacy, and shot with such extravagant flamboyance, that it’s actually physically painful to look at after awhile. The closest comparison is to Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” which is also about violence–though in this case it’s of the vigilante rather than the villainous variety (though sometimes that’s a distinction hard to draw).
The title character is, of course, Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley), the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey, whose death at 45 in 1973 left her to the care of his widow Sophie (Jacqueline Bisset), who soon remarried and deposited the youngster in a series of boarding schools. Via clips, the picture makes amusing use of the dead man’s most famous appearance in the original “Manchurian Candidate” to indicate the paternal connection Domino lost so young, but it doesn’t go very deeply into the effect this virtual abandonment had on her; it merely presumes that the natural result of the neglect was her becoming a hostile, don’t-give-a-damn kid in love with risk-taking and living on the edge. That supposedly explains why, after getting expelled from college and adopting a punk persona complete with skimpy leather shorts, tattoos and decorative chains, she decides to become a bounty hunter, eventually joining up with macho heavyweight Ed Moseby (Mickey Rourke) and handsome but volatile Venezuelan Choco (Edgar Ramirez) as the third member of their crew, which works for slippery bail bondsman Claremont Williams (Delroy Lindo). They gang is eventually joined by a fourth member, Afghan driver (and explosives expert) Alf (Rizwan Abbasi).
Kelly’s script tells us all this, but in a fractured, multi-layered fashion that’s meant to be dense but merely comes across as needlessly busy. It’s really arranged around one particular operation the hunters get sucked into–a case involving an armored-car heist of loot from a Las Vegas casino operated by Drake Bishop (Dabney Coleman), a DMV employee named Lateesha (Mo’Nique) who has a granddaughter in need of an expensive operation, the frat-boy son (Kel O’Neill) of a Mafia kingpin named Cigliutti (Stanley Kamel), a hayseed thief (Lew Temple) with a shotgun-toting mother, a wacky reality-TV producer (Christopher Walken) who hires ex-“90210” stars Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering to host a WB show about Domino and her partners making their rounds, and a slew of cops and FBI agents, most notably an interrogator played by Lucy Liu. (Scruffy Tom Waits also makes a cameo appearance as an itinerant preacher who gives an important message to Domino, Ed and Choco.) The intricacies of the plot really don’t matter much; it’s certainly possible to connect the dots in the labyrinthine structure Kelly has jerry-built, but it’s clear that what he’s mostly interested in is penning reams of dialogue that sounds as though it’s been lifted from a library of fifties pulp magazines and providing myriad opportunities for action and bullet-packed set-pieces for Scott to spin his visual excesses around. (Certainly he doesn’t seem concerned about implying that all the death and destruction wrought along the way is somehow justified by the fact that eventually it all pays for that child’s operation.) Together with cinematographer Dan Mindel and editors William Goldenberg and Christian Wagner, the director has fashioned a mile-a-minute style that employs different film stocks, saturated colors accentuating greens and yellows to often sickening effect, overlaps and whiplash cuts, smudges and repetitions (of dialogue as well as images) and pointless written titles reiterating bits of dialogue–the same sorts of thing Stone did in “Killers,” but here done even more aggressively–that taken together constitute a bleak and unremitting assault on the eyes. (The assault on the ears isn’t much more benign, reaching a crescendo of bad taste in a climactic scene in which an except from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” suddenly makes an appearance–in this context an aural form of blasphemy.) The jagged, haphazard visuals limit what the actors can do with their roles–Knightley doesn’t manage much more than a generalized bad-ass attitude, and Rourke an assemblage of macho poses. But Ramirez, who looks a bit like a bearded Val Kilmer, and Lindo and Mo’Nique, as usual, stand out through blunt force alone. Liu is dully inexpressive, Bisset wan in an incomprehensibly written part (Sophie’s attitude toward her daughter changes without explanation from moment to moment), Coleman looks old and subdued, Walken tries to do his usual hyper-odd shtick but never really lifts off, and Kamel and Temple manage only caricatures. There’s a glimmer of life in O’Neill’s performance as spoiled frat brat Frances, as the name is repeatedly spelled (and T.K. Carter gets some laughs as a self-styled devotee of young girls who’s one of his confederates), but someone should tell Kelly and Scott that “Frances” is the female form of the name “Francis,” and a mob chieftain would never have saddled his son with a girly moniker.
It seems curiously appropriate that one of the recurring motifs in “Domino” is that of a dead fish, because the movie certainly smells like one. One could spend pages reciting bits of Domino’s narration that sound like unwitting commentary on the movie as a whole (this is yet another picture that’s narrated pretty much wall-to-wall, the sure proof of lazy screenwriting)–lines like “Quite a mess indeed.” But suffice it to say that this picture is absolutely awful, a horrid portrait of horrible people horribly told, and one of the ugliest movies of the year in every conceivable sense of the word.