Before the rise of Quentin Tarantino, Brian De Palma reigned as the supreme fetishist of American movies, flirting with the absurd (and embracing camp) in thrillers, shockers, and occasional howlers that seemed to exist in part to indulge his own oversized appetite for kink and pastiche—a kind of pop cinema that veered away from populist messaging. These movies didn’t so much replicate Hitchcockian suspense effects as luxuriate in their choreography, protracting every sequence—the glacial head turn, the cut, the slow-motion mouthed gasp—to such an extent that one sometimes got the impression that De Palma’s characters had the approximate reaction times of three-toed sloths. Yet audiences often followed along; although he produced his share of cult films and critical and commercial bombs, he was also capable of creating huge mainstream hits (including the likes of Carrie, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible) that didn’t betray the idiosyncrasies of his indulgent vision. De Palma, with his taste for the heightened artificiality and technical showiness of split screens, split diopters, and Steadicam shots, probably did more than any Hollywood director outside of the golden age of the color musical to teach moviegoers to appreciate films for their purely plastic parts. Regardless, it’s difficult to think of another major American filmmaker whose movies remain harder to spoil. And not just because the actual plots of De Palma films rarely hold up under close scrutiny.
But there was a political edge to his work, too. As much as De Palma’s movies might revolve around turn-ons, the best of them had as much to say about our own impotence, reflecting his brand of post-Vietnam, post-sexual revolution, post-Nixon paranoia. Maybe it was a generational thing—the ambivalence about propriety and power, equally skeptical about what the Man had to say about the objectives of American foreign policy and the objects of one’s pleasure. His first idol, after all, was Jean-Luc Godard, whose movie-mad dialectics exerted a profound influence on such early, comparatively primitive efforts as Greetings and Hi, Mom! But as was often the case with the first part of De Palma’s career, his edginess developed before his formal prowess. He had to grow into his pessimism, producing gonzo, edge-of-the-surreal Hitchcock variations like Sisters, Obsession, and Dressed To Kill before tackling political conspiracy in Blow Out (one of his crowning achievements). Later, he would ride the success of The Untouchables straight into the Vietnam quagmire with the underappreciated Casualties Of War. And Scarface, for all its glamorization of the cocaine-kingpin lifestyle, isn’t exactly a paean to the American dream.
There are plenty of classic De Palma ingredients to be found in Domino, his first feature since 2013’s Passion: the Hitchcock quotations (including, once again, a sequence cribbed from Vertigo); the side-eyed look at American power; the dual fascinations with surveillance and helplessness. But regrettably, the movie—a troubled production that’s being released under the ignominious tagline “Murder can lead to deadlier crimes”—ranks somewhere near the bottom tier of his filmography. If Passion, an over-the-top remake of Alain Cavalier’s chilly corporate thriller Love Crime, felt like a “for the fans” effort by a director who had effectively been exiled from Hollywood after a string of expensive flops, Domino is the sort of stiff auteur workout that even a De Palma nut might struggle to defend—never anonymous, but shockingly plodding for a movie that barely passes the 80-minute mark before the end credits begin to roll. If the rumors are to be believed, something like an hour was trimmed from the director’s original cut, which might explain the uneven pacing and confused plotting, without accounting for some of the movie’s other problems.
Part cloak-and-dagger thriller, part Euro police procedural, Domino stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Christian, a leather-jacket-wearing, ex-alcoholic Copenhagen police officer who ticks off a long list of cop clichés. Responding to a late-night call about an apparent domestic disturbance with his partner, Lars (Søren Malling), Christian instead stumbles upon an apartment full of weapons and explosives, a gruesomely mutilated corpse, and a suspect who manages to slash Lars’ throat before getting tasered and whisked away by unknown, shadowy figures. The killer, as we soon learn, is Ezra Tarzai (Eriq Ebouaney), a veteran of the Danish equivalent of Special Forces, who is on a one-man rampage to take down an ISIS cell as revenge for the murder of his father, a Coptic Christian doctor, in Libya; his abductor is a CIA agent named Joe Martin (Guy Pearce, doing his best Foghorn Leghorn impression), and he has no intention of handing over Tarzai to the Danish authorities now that he’s found someone with the skills and motivation to do his dirty work. Cutting between different points of view, Domino follows Tarzai (a more compelling central character than Christian) as he pursues his targets to Belgium and Spain, and Christian as he tries to pick up his trail with the help of his new partner, Alex (Carice van Houten)—who, it turns out, was carrying on an affair with the married Lars.
In many respects, Petter Skavlan’s script feels like a bargain-priced imitation of John le Carré, complete with le Carré’s perennial theme of the individual cruelly manipulated for obscure and deadly geopolitical ends. (As for what a De Palma adaptation of a le Carré novel might look like, viewers will for now have to content themselves with the first few episodes of Park Chan-wook’s recent miniseries The Little Drummer Girl.) But even with a film this visibly compromised, it’s hard to imagine that a fuller version might reveal De Palma operating at the height of his powers, even if modern terrorism’s combination of violence and video seems like a perfect fit for his career-long obsessions. Too often, the movie lapses into crankiness, self-reference, and even self-parody, especially in the way it repeatedly cribs from the opening sequence of his earlier Femme Fatale, in which Ebouaney played a supporting role as a heavy; it borrows the film festival red carpet backdrop for a risible terrorist attack sequence, and the beat of Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” for a climax that involves a drone, a bullfight, and a bomber foiled with a well-timed slow-motion kick to the balls. Femme Fatale is ludicrously fun. Domino is, for large stretches, just ludicrous—and atypically boring. It’s a sad sight to see from a filmmaker who, once upon a time, excelled at drawing a viewer into the thrill of seeing a sequence come together, with all the pieces falling into place. In Domino, one finds only the pieces.