When is a biopic not a biopic? How far away can you get from the actual life of your subject — or, for that matter, from any recognizable reality — and still claim to be presenting the story of a particular human being? How seriously should you take any movie with an opening title that reads “Based on a true story … sort of”? There was a real Domino Harvey, the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey (the original Manchurian Candidate) and Vogue model Paulene Stone, and for a time she worked as a bounty hunter, but Tony Scott’s tacky, cheesy, derivative, over-the-top, surprisingly dull new film resembles her actual life only slightly more than it does mine.
Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. I mean, we’re not talking about Winston Churchill here. In dealing with a figure like Harvey, who in the grand scheme of things is really more a curiosity than anything else, being true to the facts is less important than making an entertaining story of her life. (If you can even determine what the facts are: Almost every story in the media calls Harvey, who died of an accidental drug overdose last June, after filming was completed, a “model-turned-bounty hunter” but family members told Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Lee that she had never worked as a model. And, while reports last spring quoted a “source” who said Harvey was a “proud lesbian” and upset that the filmmakers had made her character straight, her uncle, Warwick Stone, told Lee that she was considering suing the publishers who’d printed those reports.) The problem here is that the filmmakers, director Tony Scott and writers Steve Barancik and Richard Kelly, haven’t made an interesting story; they’ve merely grafted an assortment of action-movie clichés onto the bare bones of Harvey’s biography and patched over the holes with a mind-numbing profusion of violence.
Scott is a sensationalist, and his film is a music video for the rat-tat-tat percussion of automatic weapons firing and the timpani of massive explosions. He seems to have set himself the goal of outdoing Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino, and Scott’s own more talented (though hardly less sensationalist) brother, Ridley, all at once. Scott blows a lot of shit up, but he doesn’t do much else; does he even know how? He never engages the audience on anything but the most puerile, sex-and-violence level.
I’ll admit that initially Domino is visually arresting. The film varies in tint, in grain, in camera angle, in speed (besides an excess of slow-motion, Scott diddles around with the stop-printing process often used by Wong Kar-Wai); it uses double-, triple-, and quadruple-exposures. There’s variation in the film’s look but no variation in tone. This is the leaden work of a man who’s emptied his shallow bag of tricks. Though Scott is working with a new cinematographer, Daniel Mindel, most of the movie features the same grainy, high-contrast, acid-colored film stock; wacky camera angles; and herky-jerky editing Scott used in Man on Fire. Sadly, this is an even worse film: I was frequently revolted and appalled by Man on Fire, but I was never bored.
Part of the problem is the depiction of Harvey (played by the lovely — and, conceivably, talented — Keira Knightly), who’s shown from the outset to be superhumanly quick, clever, and capable. There’s little attempt to show her developing her skills, and she suffers no apparent difficulties as a woman in an almost exclusively male environment; in fact, she’s better suited to it than the men, since she has her feminine wiles to rely on as well as her expertise with all known varieties of weapon. When her crew gets into a Mexican standoff that seems sure to end in a bloodbath of Shakespearean proportions, she solves the problem by giving the head thug a lap-dance. Take that, all you silly feminists who thought a movie about a female bounty hunter might be empowering.
The film’s plot briefly recaps Harvey’s origins and then thrusts her into a fictional plot about an inside job that’s also a double-cross that later turns into a triple cross. (If you think I’m going to try and parse out all its ridiculous convolutions, you must assume I’m being paid far more than I am.) Mickey Rourke plays Ed, Harvey’s boss and mentor, a character loosely (get used to that word) based on Ed Martinez, his real-life counterpart, who also served as a consultant. Delroy Lindo plays Ed and Harvey’s boss, legendary bail bondsman Claremont Williams III, who’s loosely based on their actual boss Celes King III. Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez plays Choco (pronounced Choke-oh), the third member of Ed’s team, who’s based on something Scott once read that said hirsute Latin men are sexy. And, in the movie’s only interesting role, standup comedian Mo’Nique plays Lateesha, a character who skirts the line between broad-but-funny racial comedy and ugly racial stereotyping.
Those who manage to stay awake will find that the film is a pop-culture smorgasbord, laden with gratuitous, though sometimes entertaining, references to TV and movies of the recent past. (The film’s frame of reference seems to extend about as far back as the autumn of 1990.) There’s an homage to — of all things — Point Break, in which the gang of surfer-dude thieves wore latex masks of U.S. Presidents. Here the thieves wear masks of First Ladies Kennedy, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton. Har har. And the film has a perverse fixation with “Beverly Hills 90210,” using it both as a symbol of the bourgeois American dream and as a punching bag. Being both good sports and out-of-work actors in need of a paycheck, “90210” stars Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green show up to mock their own plight as has-beens. There’s also a sick but mildly amusing joke about there being a statue of comedian Sam Kinison in front of the post office in Needles, California, the location of his fatal car accident. The movie borrows from other pop-culture mediocrities with such abandon that it even cribs a crucial scene from another Scott film, True Romance. Yes, I’m on the phone with Tarantino’s attorneys right now.
Scott brings in Ziering and Green as the hosts of a reality-TV show based on the bounty hunters’ adventures, a show produced by Mark Heiss (Christopher Walken), the ur-smarmy-TV-producer, who says things like “This is reality television; what you see is what you get,” while merrily falsifying Harvey’s life for the sake of ratings. Satirizing reality TV is pretty pointless at a time when the genre itself has reached the point of total self-satire, and it makes particularly little sense coming from Scott. He has the same problem Oliver Stone had in Natural Born Killers: You can’t properly satirize a sensibility you share. At best, you come off as a hypocrite; at worst, you direct Natural Born Killers.
I’m inclined to forgive Knightley, who, after all, is only 20 years old, came to shoot Domino after a mere four-day break following the wrap of Pride & Prejudice, and signed onto this movie only last year, while Scott, who’s 61, had nearly a dozen years to figure out how to make a movie that wasn’t a steaming pile of crap. I feel less tolerant toward screenwriter Richard Kelly, the overrated wunderkind auteur behind Donnie Darko, who I’ve read is responsible for all the self-indulgent pop-culture non sequiturs but, on the other hand, penned the line, “I recommend speaking in short sentences because he has the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth,” followed by a line in which a character allows that he’s seen just such a creature. No, whatever better decisions Knightley, Kelly, and the rest might have made, ultimately it’s Scott who bought the rights to Harvey’s story and spent over a decade developing it, and it’s Scott who must bear the blame. Your boxes of animal feces may be directed to him care of Scott Free Productions, 614 N. La Peer Drive, Los Angeles, California 90069.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()