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 * * * *

Race

race-movie-poster

2015 was a year where the biopic genre had a major resurgence with movies like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Love & Mercy.” Most biopics in recent years have been strictly by-the-numbers affairs which give us historical footnotes without going into much depth about the people they are about, but those two movies brought their subjects to life in a most wonderfully vivid way. “Race,” the biopic about gold medalist Jesse Owens which should have made years ago, will not rank among the best of the genre and starts off as a by-the-numbers affair, but it does get better as it goes along as we watch this iconic African American athlete get ready for the Olympics.

Instead of looking at Owens’ whole life, “Race” focuses on the years he went to college and began training with Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) who molds his running talent into something even better. Despite the adversity he and other African Americans face on the university campus, Owens soon becomes a star athlete and gets selected to compete in the Olympic Games. But these are the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin which was under the grip of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. On top of dealing with racism in America, Owens also has to deal with a dictator who will not be quick to celebrate any victory he could possibly achieve.

“Race” gets off to a rocky start as it gives us snapshots of Owens’ life without much in the way of introspection. We briefly see the troubled relationship between him and his father in a wordless scene, but it’s never clear why these two aren’t getting along. To its credit, it doesn’t gloss over Owens’ affair which almost destroyed his relationship with his girlfriend and daughter, and it makes for some strong scenes as he desperately tries to win her back.

The movie, however, does get better when we watch Owens finding success, and there is a subplot involving Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) who battle over whether or not America should even participate in these Olympic Games. We also get to see Carice van Houten as Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose life could easily inspire a fascinating biopic on its own. Indeed, the politics behind these games help to make “Race” more riveting as it makes us see just how high the stakes were for everyone involved. Had it just focused on Owens, it would have been anti-climactic as we know how successful he would be at those Olympic Games.

“Race” was directed by Stephen Hopkins whose resume is all over the map as he has gone from making “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child” and “Predator 2” to helming episodes of “24” and the acclaimed HBO movie “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.” He does give the movie an amazing scene in which Owens enters the Berlin Stadium, and he puts us right into the man’s shoes as he works to tune out all the other voices yelling at him. Some biopics keep you at arm’s length away from their main subject, but this one makes you feel what it’s like to be Owens as Hopkins surrounds him with his camera to where we quickly come to understand what it’s like to be Owens at this moment. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, and he manages to not let this affect him as he makes his way to the starting line.

Playing Owens is Stephan James who played civil rights activist John Lewis in “Selma,” and he has been given the daunting task of humanizing such an iconic human being. But he succeeds as he gives us an Owens full of strengths and flaws like anyone else, and he never succumbs to portraying this gold medalist as some sort of superhuman. Had James done that, this movie could have easily fallen apart.

But the performance in “Race” I was most impressed with was Jason Sudeikis’ as Coach Larry Snyder. Sudeikis is best known for his time on “Saturday Night Live,” but the fact that he pulls off a first-rate dramatic performance here did not surprise me. Any actor or actress who can do comedy can certainly do drama as making people cry is a lot easier than making people laugh, but Sudeikis ends up giving this movie its most complex character. Snyder comes across as a hard ass when it comes to coaching his runners, but we come to see what fuels his commitment to them and of the things he was unable to accomplish as a runner himself. Sudeikis also has a great scene where he shows Owens and his team how successfully one can shout out opposing voices yelling at him in the background. He sells this scene for all it’s worth, and it makes me look forward to whatever this former “SNL” star decides to take on next.

“Race” is not going to go down as one of the best biopics ever made, but it is a compelling one all the same. While it does fall victim to reducing its subject’s life down to mere footnotes at the movie’s start, it does improve as we learn more about Owens and of the obstacles placed in his path when he decides to participate in the Olympic Games. In many ways, we should be thankful any biopic about Jesse Owens finally made it to the big screen as this movie should have been made years ago. Could it have been a better movie? Sure, but this one will do for now.

* * * out of * * * *