Matt Dillon makes a shaky bigscreen helming debut with “City of Ghosts,” a white flotsam-in-Asia drama whose conventional content is garnished but not obscured by generous helpings of authentic Cambodian settings. Despite a name cast, with Dillon playing an insurance crook, pic is holed by a plot-heavy script that’s unsatisfying at a character level and plays like a cut-down version of a much longer, more ambitious saga. Only modest business looks likely for this first Western feature set and actually filmed in Cambodia since “Lord Jim” (1965).
Dillon plays Jimmy Cremmins, the head of a New York insurance company who finds FBI investigators at his door after a hurricane that’s landed him with a mountain of claims. The feds are after his business manager, Marvin, who has fled after emptying the company’s offshore accounts. They suspect Jimmy was in on the scam, too.
Jimmy discovers Marvin is in Cambodia and jets off first to Bangkok, Thailand, to meet with a business associate, Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgard), who knows exactly where Marvin is. Kaspar tells Jimmy to journey on to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and check into the Belleville Hotel, where he’ll join him in two days.
The Belleville, run by a portly Frenchman, Emile (Gerard Depardieu), is a watering hole for all kinds of Western trash, including a penniless drunk, an abusive Gaul and a hectoring Yank in a wheelchair. As soon as he arrives, Jimmy spontaneously comes to the aid of harassed English art restorer Sophie (Natascha McElhone), but she slips away when he invites her to dinner.
By the end of the second reel, pic has fleetingly introduced enough characters to fill a miniseries, as well as establishing a restless, tightly edited style that’s high on handheld camerawork, tight close-ups and colorful personalities out of some latter-day Graham Greene novel. Without any false exoticism, the lensing by indie d.p. Jim Denault (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Nadja”) exactly captures the humid, dusty bustle of Phnom Penh’s streets, and the Cambodian capital’s mix of ex-colonial shabbiness and postwar modernization.
Dillon — who visited the region several times during the ’90s and clearly fell in love with it — has done Cambodia proud, packing the pic with many small, telling grace notes and avoiding any superior point-of-view. Unfortunately, the larger dramatic arc of the script by himself and Barry Gifford (“Wild at Heart”) seems to have got lost in the process.
After an episode in a girlie joint that seems to be there simply for color, Jimmy finally tracks down Marvin (James Caan), who’s teamed up with an ex-general, Sideth (Chalee Sankhavesa), to build a seaside hotel-casino complex using the $16 million from the insurance scam. Marvin urges Jimmy to take his cut and leave town, but Jimmy stays on when Marvin is kidnapped by terrorists demanding $5 million ransom.
By now, the movie is trying to juggle about a half-dozen plot strands. Though Howard E. Smith’s editing is admirably tight, it doesn’t leave much room for any of these to bloom in a meaningful way, and several supporting characters (including Depardieu’s) basically disappear in the second half.
Also thinly introduced — despite being sign-posted by the movie’s title — is Cambodia’s socio-political background in the haunted post-Khmer Rouge era. Sole reps for this strand are Sideth, who’s little more than a vaguely drawn smiling crook, and Sok (nonpro Sereyvuth Kem), who befriends Jimmy.
Dillon’s brooding character, who should be the emotional tentpole for the whole pic, is equally nebulous, despite being onscreen the entire time. Generating little real chemistry with his fellow actors, especially Caan and McElhone, Dillon only hints at any personal odyssey in the conflicted Jimmy. In fact, the most engaging relationship in the whole movie is his friendship with Sok.
Most of the cast members go through their paces with a kind of solid professionalism. Caan has fun with the larger-than-life Marvin; Depardieu ditto with the flamboyant, volcanic Emile; McElhone is effortlessly camera-friendly as the token love interest; and Skarsgard, with his stateless, indefinable accent, phones in a typically laid-back perf as the shifty Kaspar.
Overall, pic is moderately entertaining and shows Dillon (who previously helmed an episode of HBO prison drama “Oz”) showing basic directorial smarts. But a movie of this ambition and complexity required a more experienced hand at the helm.