Brian De Palma’s ‘Domino’ is Not One of His Best Movies, But Not One of his Worst Either

Domino 2019 movie poster

BRIAN DE PALMA HAS A NEW MOVIE OUT. Now that last sentence was capitalized because I’m fairly certain most of my friends do not know this, and they are big fans of De Palma’s work. His latest film is “Domino,” not to be confused the late Tony Scott’s 2005 film of the same name, and it is being released quietly in a few theaters and on VOD on May 31st. Because of the lack of any real fanfare, many are calling this film “lesser De Palma” even before they have had a chance to view it. Even De Palma doesn’t seem all too excited about its release and is instead more interested in talking about what a difficult and horrible production it was. Now this is not the way you want your movie to open.

Well, I agree that “Domino” belongs in the “lesser De Palma” category, but having seen it twice, it’s actually better than you might expect. Yes, this was an underfunded production, and the movie is a standard cop revenge one we have seen many times before, but it still contains moments which quickly reminded me of what a master filmmaker De Palma can be when he is given the freedom to unleash his cinematic magic.

Things start off in Copenhagen on June 20, 2020. Why this movie takes place in 2020 is never made clear, but anyway. We are introduced to police officers Christian Toft (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Lars Hansen (Soren Malling), and we quickly discover they have been partners for quite some time to where they see one another as family. Even Lars’ wife, Hanne (Paprika Steen), sees Christian as a son, and the closeness they all feel with one another is quite palpable.

But this partnership is brutally destroyed one night when Christian and Lars investigate a domestic disturbance which has them arresting suspected ISIS member Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney). While Christian is checking out a crime scene, Ezra breaks free of his handcuffs, attacks Lars and slashes his throat in the process. Christian gives chase, but Ezra ends up being taken away by men who have other uses for his violent talents. Regardless, Christian vows to avenge the attack on Lars and promises to bring Ezra back to face justive.

Clearly this is a straightforward revenge flick, but other layers are added to the plot as we are introduced to duplicitous CIA agent Joe Martin (Guy Pearce) who intends to use Ezra for his own needs such as using him as a pawn to catch other ISIS members. Then there is another Copenhagen cop, Alex Boe (Carice van Houten), who is eager to bring down Ezra as well and for reasons which we will eventually become clear. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but here it comes with an endless set of complications which will lead to many, many lives being threatened.

The attack on Lars leaves Christian riddled with guilt as he made the mistake of leaving his gun behind at home, forcing him to borrow Lars’ and leaving his partner defenseless. I tell you, if this were an American cop, the gun would never have been forgotten or left behind. It would have been remembered because Americans are a little too much in love with their guns, you know? Perhaps the Danish are a bit more relaxed with guns or, better yet, they have better way of dealing with gun control policies than Americans do.

While “Domino” fails to have the same production values which are evident in De Palma’s best work, there are still moments which remind us of what a master filmmaker he can be and how brilliant he is in ratcheting up the suspense. This especially is the case in the movie’s climax in which Christian and Alex chase down a team of ISIS terrorists who are preparing to set off a bomb in an arena. As things escalate to an explosive conclusion, De Palma keeps us on the edge of our seats through some brilliant editing and the music of one of his favorite composers, Pino Donaggio.

De Palma also utilizes split screens here and there, particularly in a terrifying moment when a female suicide bomber lays waste to a red-carpet event with a machine gun. The thought of death terrifies her, but she is endlessly manipulated by ISIS leader Salah Al Din (Mohammed Azaay) who promises her a road to God no one else can give her. Of course, it’s quite telling how he is willing to let others meet God before he does, or maybe he is simply getting others to do things he doesn’t have the guts to do himself.

Some will be quick to point out how stereotypical the terrorists are in “Domino.” Granted, they do fit the stereotypes many people have of Middle East terrorists, but I personally don’t see how you can judge an entire race of people or an ethnicity just from the portrayal of a handful of them in a movie. Then again, this is not a movie eager to dig too deep into the politics or deeply held religious beliefs. It is simply a straightforward thriller eager to give us an exciting, if not altogether memorable, time at the movies or at home on television which is where “Domino” will likely find its biggest audience.

The acting for the most part is serviceable. Coster-Waldau is believable as a cop plagued with guilt, and he gives the movie the protagonist it needs. Ebouaney helps to make Ezra more than the typically stereotypical terrorist as his acts of violence serve a similar need for vengeance involving his own family. It’s always great to see Carice van Houten in anything, and she makes Alex a strong female cop and an interesting foil for Christian. But perhaps the most colorful performance in “Domino” comes from Guy Pearce as the corrupt CIA agent who thinks nothing of working with terrorists to get what he wants, or of the laws being broken in the process. Pearce is a delight to watch as he swiftly moves from one place to another with relative ease and without ever breaking a sweat.

Indeed, “Domino” will not go down as one of De Palma’s best works, but I am glad to see it is far from being one of his worst. It certainly fares much better than “Snake Eyes” which, despite an amazing opening shot, quickly turned into a hopelessly idiotic mystery thriller. It is taut, has a streamlined running time, and while its ending feels a bit too pat, it gets the job done. Although this movie is getting dumped alongside blockbusters such as “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “Rocketman,” it is not the complete loss many have made it out to be.

In the documentary “De Palma,” the filmmaker talked about how he feels he can no longer make a studio movie. I thought “Domino” would be his ticket to escaping the shackles Hollywood executives are quick to put any filmmaker regardless of their long-standing reputation, but judging from the behind the scenes stories, it sounds like he didn’t quite break free of them. Regardless, this movie shows he still has his gifts. While many see him as being past his prime, I still believe he has a masterpiece or two left in him. I just hope whoever he works with next gives him the tools he needs instead of forcing him to make do with only what he has been given.

* * * out of * * * *

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