How the mighty have fallen. Brian De Palma, who once made iconic films like “Carrie” and “The Untouchables,” has now been reduced to directing inferior material like “Domino.” He pulls out his old bag of cinematic tricks to try to invigorate the movie—and adds a music score from his regular collaborator Pino Donaggio—but even they can’t enliven the stale tale of a disgraced cop chasing the killer of his partner and, in the process, getting involved with foiling a terrorist plot.
The cop is Christian (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a Danish plainclothes detective who makes the mistake of leaving his gun behind at home after enjoying the company of a lady. Called along with his partner Lars (Søren Malling) to investigate reports of violence in an apartment building, he confronts a suspicious guy (Eriq Ebouaney) with blood on his shoes, and takes him into custody, leaving the man in Lars’s charge while he looks into the source of the evidence.
Christian finds a dead man in an upper-story flat, but while he’s away Lars turns his back on the captive to take a phone call, and the man struggles out of his cuffs and cuts his throat, climbing out a window to escape. Without his gun Christian clambers onto the ledge in pursuit, but both man fall to the pavement. Some unknown figures arrive to take away the killer, leaving Christian behind.
This opening sequence already shows the old De Palma technique at work—not only in the protracted scene of Lars getting attacked while distracted, but in the action on the gutters and rooftops, where he indulges his passion to do homage to Hitchcock via obvious parallels to “Vertigo.”
Even here, however, something feels slightly off: the timing isn’t as perfect as it once was, the staging less assured. It seems that the director isn’t entirely in sync with the actors, cinematographer José Luis Aleaine, and editor Bill Paukow. One sees flashes of the old magic at work, but as a whole the sequence comes across as second-rate self-imitation.
Even worse, it’s followed by script developments that reek of cliché and triteness. Christian is put under internal scrutiny for how he handled the entire business, and is partnered with another detective, Alex (Carice van Houten) to track down the killer. He turns out to be Ezra, a Libyan émigré who’s been nabbed by Joe Martin, a freewheeling CIA agent with a southern drawl who intends to use him to track down Sheik Salak al-Din (Mohammed Azaay), head of an ISIS-linked terrorist cell that has not only been mounting mass suicide killings but showing them live on the Internet via cameras carried by the perpetrators. One, at the glitzy opening ceremony of a film festival, is presented by De Palma in his customarily florid style, complete with split screens, color commentary and encouragement from al-Din, who’s watching from afar.
The two storylines becomes linked, ending at an arena in Spain, where al-Din’s latest attack—involving a bullfight, a massive crowd, confederates disguised as concession-sellers and drones controlled from a nearby skyscraper—forms the basis for one of the director’s elaborate set-pieces, with more split screens, a good deal of slow-mo, and lots of intercutting between the various loci of the action.
But while as carefully choreographed as the famous steps scene of “The Untouchables” (and accompanied by the insistent strains of a bolero), it too feels slightly off, lacking the precision and sheer panache of De Palma’s earlier work. Once again, the camerawork and editing contribute to the problem, but the inescapable conclusion is that the director is trying, but failing, to recapture the style and energy of his best films.
There are elements in “Domino” that are promising. One is the connection drawn between acts of terror and the media that effectively glamorizes them. Another is the quasi-Hitchcockian predicament of Ezra, whom Martin coerces into becoming his instrument by threatening his family. But the first isn’t sufficiently explored, and the latter becomes virtually an afterthought, subsumed in Pearce’s very broad performance, though one sees suggestions of what might have been in Ebouaney’s more nuanced one.
Instead too much attention is given over to the relationship between Christian and Alex, which frankly is rather a bore, despite—or because of—the fact that it’s revealed that Alex was Lars’s mistress, shocking Christian, who believed his partner to have been happily married. The two frankly strike no sparks, giving performances that come off as more dutiful than exciting. In addition, the terrorist cell is depicted in a flat, simplistic fashion, with Azaay a one-note villain. (Of course, the CIA is also portrayed without shading, with Martin shown as utterly cynical and unprincipled.) Still, dramatic depth has never been the director’s forte; it’s how the story is told, rather than the quality of the narrative itself, that has always been his strength. In the best cases, that’s been more than enough; here, it’s not.
To be fair to him, De Palma is on record as describing “Domino” as a troubled shoot, with inadequate financing and intrusion from the producers. But whatever the cause, while the finished product shows occasional flashes of the director’s erstwhile brilliance, as a whole it’s a dispiriting failure to recapture it.