Originally when I conceived this piece it was after watching Smokin’ Aces which made me realize I have an affinity for faux artsy action films. I had seen RockNRolla the other week and I noticed the pattern of similar films that sprang up in the mid to late 2000’s. They’re all bounty hunter/hitman centric with a touch of the mob and have a colorful but gritty aesthetic no doubt inspired by the popularity of Guy Ritchie’s early work. I thought to round out these two choices I’d rewatch Domino, Tony Scott’s 2005 semi-biopic about model turned bounty hunter Domino Harvey, and that where everything got eclipsed. Domino is a mess of film from a writing, directing, editing and acting standpoint and I love it. It’s nearly unwatchable yet so fascinating that I always have to stay till the end just to see if it can make it to the finish line. Placing it in the context of these other films that have their own imperfections, it’s easier to see why Domino fails in so many categories.
All these films are about low level crooks getting caught up in mob dealings and big money. With RockNRolla it’s the cockney “Wild Bunch” who steal for hire for billionaire Russians or a double crossing mob boss. In Smokin’ Aces it’s multiple factions of assassins from neo-nazis to Latino mercenaries all convening to take out a celebrity magician hiding at a penthouse in Tahoe. Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley) is an attractive, well off girl who is bored with her life of wealth and status so becomes a bounty hunter essentially because she’s a natural born badass. While the two prior films may sound crazier, they’re having fun with their quirky characters, Domino instead wants to be dramatic and pretentious in the trashiest way possible. She’s every character in Aces rolled into one and she gives no fucks. Speaking of characters, all of these have overstuffed casts. Rolla and Aces kick off with a big run down of all the players are and their objectives. It’s overwhelming at first but there’s enough reminders to keep you on track of who is killing who. Domino starts off in the middle of the film, you’re thrown right into a shoot out, well, Domino is recounting it to FBI agent Mill (Lucy Lui) and that narrative binding is a whole other issue. It’s a gripping start that does a decent job at laying out our heros but as the film back tracks, it feels the need to constantly be expanding on each character’s back story in the most unsubtle ways. This is a movie that is mostly backstory and when you reach the actual plot, over an hour has gone by in this fever dream. There’s no such thing as subtext in a Scott film as Domino will tell you every single piece of information about herself and her friend Ed (Mickey Rourke) and love interest Choco (Edgar Ramirez). On top of that there’s actual text on screen repeating what she’s said in case you missed the significance.
The best way to describe Domino is too “artsy” to be mainstream and too dumb to be arthouse. It’s caught in this strange nebulous of off the wall style but with overtly stated themes and writing choices like the example above. Why I call Domino “unwatcable” is because it can actually be physically jarring to watch. Like many of Scott’s later films, it’s all shaky handheld cameras and fast edits. The camera never holds for more than a few seconds and is so disorienting. All the colors are bleached out, oversaturated yellows and greens that feel like the film is melting in front of you. There are scenes where this should be effective like when the Domino and her crew accidentally trip on mescaline. Where the already unfocused camera movements would seem apropos, Scott opts to make the visuals even blurrier. Smokin’ Aces uses a similar saturated color palette, everything feels overexposed in the California sun but at least has a tougher reign on its editing. The movie can manage to remain static on a monologue where Domino can’t have a second of dialogue before cutting to someone’s hand or a goldfish.
Though I can’t quite tell you the importance of hands, the goldfish imagery is one of the themes specifically referring to Domino’s daddy issues that she constantly brings up. One of the weaknesses of the movie is all the subtext becomes text. Besides the character herself pointing out Ed is her father figure to Brian Austin Green yelling to her face that she’s got daddy issues, the goldfish is meant to represent her deceased father because that was his last gift to her. On top of having a goldfish tattoo (though really a coy Lui point out), she keeps a few fish around as she bounty hunts. At one point the fish dies which we as an audience would recognize as a bad omen but just to make sure, Domino says “we should’ve stopped when my goldfish died”. Why a movie like Domino gets so much flack is because it takes its metaphors so seriously and spoon feeds it to you thinking it’s clever. A serious tone is what ruins movies like this. RockNRolla succeeds the most because it’s so happy go-luck for a crime story and Aces roughest moments are when Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven) is pontificating about illusion and reality or Ryan Reynolds stares emotionally at the camera. Domino treats every line of voice over with the same level of profoundness and delivered with an unprecedented level of angst from Knightley. Somewhere in Richard Kelly’s script is a comment on white privilege and an obsession with fame with the use of the reality TV side plot or the unrelenting references to 90201 but nothing really comes to fruition. Instead Domino at the end is proudly telling a young black girl that she “saved her” without an ounce self awareness. At least RockNRolla’s privileged child screw up manages to be a drug addict and menace to society. That I believe.
Domino flipped a coin both in and outside of the film. “Heads you live, tails you die” is the anthem that rings throughout symbolizing that in every situation she and her crew run into, they are faced with the 50/50 chance of survival. I’d say that means this movie is about chance but in the finale she states “my destiny was life” so I give up. Either way Scott also took a risk with making such an unconventionally visual film. He’s putting his work out there but alas, it comes up tails. There is a silver lining though, it also lands on heads. Even with the copious missteps, it’s a delightful trainwreck that only comes with pure sincerity. While it may give me motion sickness, it’s worth it for the teen angst car crash sex and five minute scene dedicated to Jerry Springer and Mo’Nique just a taste of the madness. I would have loved to see the TV show this movie was meant to be as seen by the 70’s style opening credits showing nostalgic snapshots for characters we have yet to meet to the spin off with Ladies of the DMV. There is a bizarre, tonally unhinged world you’re thrown into here. RockNRolla may have the sheen and levity and Smokin’ Aces has the fun gun play but Domino has got it all and more. It’s a movie I want people to experience as you break down scene by scene what’s wrong. It sets a high bar for bad movies that not even Tony Scott’s other films can reach but maybe everyone should try just a little bit harder.