We all have guilty pleasures. Movies we secretly like even though we know we’d catch holy hell from our friends if they ever found out. For me, Tony Scott’s DOMINO (2005) is just that- a guilty pleasure. An immensely guilty one.
DOMINO is different from most biopics in that Domino Harvey lived her life as a tough-as-nails, badass bounty hunter, but the plot of the movie chronicling her life is almost entirely fictionalized. Domino tragically died a few months before the film’s release from a drug overdose, but this cinematic monument foregoes factual accuracy in a bid to capture her inimitable spirit and zeal for life.
All throughout her life, Domino (Keira Knightley) has felt different than the other girls. She was more into playing with knives and guns, instead of dolls and boys. She falls in with Ed (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez), two bounty hunters who teach her the tricks of the trade. Swiftly realizing her gift for bounty hunting, she becomes an invaluable addition to the team and eventually attracts the attention of an eccentric reality TV producer. Now faced with having to perform their jobs in front of a cadre of television cameras, the trio find themselves in the middle of a larger conspiracy involving the mafia and the DMV. It all builds to a psychotic showdown in Las Vegas where Domino’s mettle will be tested and her destiny will be met.
The cast is well aware of the inherent insanity of the plot, and to their credit, they bring an unmitigated zeal to the proceedings. Keira Knightley completely shreds her prim and proper persona to become a razor-sharp, super-tough, emotionally damaged hellcat of a bounty hunter. She uses her words, her guns, and her sexuality equally as weapons of mass destruction. She singes the screen with a dangerous charisma that’s undeniable. It’s undoubtedly my favorite performance of hers. Mickey Rourke, fresh off his collaboration with Scott in 2004’s MAN ON FIRE, shows up as Domino’s mentor, Ed. Ed is a tough old bastard who’s seen his fair share of battles, and I really can’t imagine anyone else but Rourke in the role. He clearly is enjoying himself and the character, which makes his portrayal that much more likeable. As Choco, Edgar Ramirez is a strong, almost silent presence. He lets his dark, highly expressive eyes do most of the talking for him, and when he does speak, it’s in a mumbled Spanish. He’s a wild, unpredictable personality who bubbles at the brim with internal demons and restlessness.
The supporting cast is up-to-snuff, as well. Lucy Liu plays an FBI interrogator, in a recurring and bookending sequence that frames the story and allows Domino to recount her life events in a dramatic fashion. Liu remains a stoic, emotionless presence who approaches her exchange with Domino as a kind of chess game. The role doesn’t allow her to emote very much, but she does a lot with very little. Christopher Walken, in his third collaboration with Scott, plays the eccentric reality TV producer with a manic energy. He fully embraces his kooky public image and savors every sleazy aspect of his character, even down to the blond highlights. Mena Suvari plays Walken’s assistant, who complements his quirkiness with a bookish, anxious charm that holds its own against his aggressive characterization. Other notable appearances include Delroy Lindo as Domino’s bail bondsman boss, Mo’Nique and Macy Gray as a full-on-ghetto pair of DMV employees/thieves, Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering (the BEVERLY HILLS 90210 guys) playing fictionalized, douchebag versions of themselves, and Tom Waits as a feverish desert prophet. The whole cast is dedicated to carrying out Scott’s zany vision, and the result is nothing short of pure chaos.
It could be argued that Scott reaches the zenith of his filmmaking style with DOMINO. He’s subsequently built on his style with each work, and I don’t see how he could possibly top DOMINO’s distinct blend of anarchy. Working again with Director of Photography Dan Mindel, Scott crafts an image that’s akin to being left out to cook in the desert sun for years. The contrast is obscenely high, colors are saturated to the point of oblivion, and the overall image veers towards a stylized super-green and orange tint. It’s not just the mid-tones either– black shadows are rendered in a deep green, highlights are blown out and border on yellow or blue, depending on the mood being called for in a given scene. Film grain is slathered on the image like a liberal heap of butter on bread, while various color elements bleed off the frame like they’ve been processed to death.
In essence, DOMINO looks like a two-hour long music video, complete with double-exposures, strobing lights, reverse, fast, and slow motion ramps, and other tricks. The film is very much a product of its time, in that its unique style is made possible only because of the rise of digital, nonlinear editing systems that surpass the physical boundaries of traditional cut-and-paste film editing. What would normally have to be accomplished via a time-intensive date with an optical printer can be done in two seconds with the click of a mouse, all without any degradation of the image. Camerawork is mostly handheld and anarchic, favoring extreme close-ups. Scott also finds ample opportunity to throw in dynamic, animated subtitles that appear in different fonts and punctuate the dialogue.
Harry Gregson-Williams returns to the score the film, bringing a heavy metal sound that’s appropriate to the proceedings. The rest of the soundtrack is populated by an eclectic mix of source music, ranging from gangster rap to Tom Jones covering Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come”. Scott even finds an opportunity to include the rave remix of Clint Mansell’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM score, which he previously used in MAN ON FIRE.
DOMINO is consistent within Scott’s particular brand of storytelling. He finds moments to incorporate surveillance imagery, as well as over-stylized action. The screenplay, written by Richard Kelly of DONNIE DARKO fame, allows for maximum indulgence on Scott’s part. One of the most potent themes of DOMINO, however, is the satirical aspect of reality television. Sure, it’s broadly sketched, at times approaching SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE levels of parody, but it is a great counterpoint to Domino’s anti-establishment spirit. Despite the grim, brutal acts of violence that abound, Scott always approaches the proceedings with a wry sense of gallows humor. By taking itself way too seriously, the whole thing might have sunk under its own weight.
So why do I like this movie? Admittedly, I know I shouldn’t. I’ve railed before at how I sometimes find Scott’s style to be abrasive and of no extra value to the story itself, and by all expectations, DOMINO should fall into that category. Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the desert setting, or the casting. Or that, like 2001’s SPY GAME, I first saw the film in the theatre when I was in college, and it now resides in a nostalgic little corner of my memory. Or maybe it’s an instance of Scott finding the perfect marriage between style and subject. Whatever it is, it appeals to me on a bewildering level. It’s far from Scott’s greatest work, but goddamn if it isn’t entertaining as all hell.
DOMINO is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from New Line.