Why would the owners of Las Vegas’ Stratosphere want to see their high-rise landmark blown up onscreen? That such an event climaxes this helter-skelter biopic, however fictionalized, is merely the most unsettling of the numerous dislocations evident in “Domino,” Tony Scott’s aggressively grungy look at the life of the late femme bounty hunter Domino Harvey. Subject’s novelty value and Keira Knightley in her first bad-ass role will provide some draw, but pic is satisfying neither as character study nor as straight-ahead actioner. Result is a between-the-cracks entertainment that might accrue a limited devoted fan base but appears destined for middling biz overall.
A friend of Harvey’s for the last 15 years of her life (she died in June of an apparent overdose, after the film was completed), Scott never intended to make a straightforward account of her eventful, troubled life. Choice of Richard Kelly (“Donnie Darko”) as screenwriter further guaranteed an unconventional approach, one that deliberately jumbles the narrative, possibly mixes reality and fantasy and, as is Scott’s wont, decisively favors surface effect over depth or coherence.
The elementary psycho-emotional dynamic is apparent. Brief snippets of “The Manchurian Candidate” reference the father whom Domino scarcely knew, ’60s Brit film star Laurence Harvey, and when mom, gorgeous Sophie Wynn (Jacqueline Bisset), packs her off to boarding school, the girl has something tangible to rebel against.
And rebel she does, for the rest of her life — against the privilege that was her birthright, coasting along on her great looks. The hook of an elegant, posh-accented hottie choosing to become a bounty hunter working Los Angeles’ most sinister ‘hoods gives “Domino” automatic fascination, and in Scott’s view the prime motivation (for his heroine and his film) is the adrenaline rush, the daily opportunity to walk on the wild side, as the title of one of Domino’s father’s more famous films put it.
But this is not, as it turns out, enough. As relentlessly as the director pushes Domino beyond the fringes of civilized society into an uncharted zone of heavily armed anarchy, he is paradoxically prudish when it comes to her personal behavior. Knightley serves up a character who is permanently angry and confrontational, a seething woman who’s got something gnawing at her insides she can’t ever make go away.
One has to imagine, however, that someone so untamed and presumably unstable would supplement the occasional bashing down of doors or gunpoint standoffs with the more conventional outlets of sex and substance indulgence, illicit or otherwise. There’s scarcely an indication of either, however, making Domino mysterious and unknowable to the audience in some of the wrong ways.
Not that she lacks for provocative professional technique. After answering an employment ad for top bail-bondsman Claremont Williams (Delroy Lindo), Domino goes on her first job with old pro/father figure Ed Mosbey (Mickey Rourke) and simmering Venezuelan Choco (Edgar Ramirez) into the lair of a nasty Hispanic gang. In the director’s signature sequence here, Domino thwarts what looks like an inevitable shootout by offering a lap dance to a big-gutted homeboy.
After this sort of display, it can only be one short step to showbiz, which is where the team, which also periodically includes Afghani explosives expert Alf (Rizwan Abbasi), soon lands. When Domino is named 2003’s bounty hunter of the year, Hollywood comes calling in the form of producer Mark Heiss (Christopher Walken), who casts the team in a reality show, “The Bounty Squad,” hosted by Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green of “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
With this sought-after recognition, however, comes a downward slide, as the group becomes involved in a complicated and unsavory scheme involving Williams; his girlfriend Lateesha (the engaging live-wire Mo’Nique), who deals fake IDs from her job at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles; latter’s granddaughter, who urgently needs an expensive operation; a determined FBI investigator (Lucy Liu); and criminals ranging from desert scum to Vegas kingpins.
Considerably less prepossessing than her real-life counterpart, Knightley at times seems in slightly over her head, a girl trying to do a (tough) woman’s job. But she’s also game and fun to watch getting down and dirty.
Rourke provides a few looks that suggest his rugged ex-con has more on his mind than just mentoring his new team member, while smoldering newcomer Ramirez stifles his character’s desire for Domino for so long it’s a wonder he doesn’t explode. Tom Waits has a very strange cameo as a bedraggled preacher in the desert.
Scott, who can make films as slick as they come, goes the opposite way this time, using a grab-bag of extreme techniques that gives the picture a look as rough as its milieu. Often dousing scenes in a putrid shade of green and seemingly deliberately obscuring actors’ eyes, Scott and lenser Dan Mindel create a collage effect by mixing formats, film stocks, levels of saturation, abrupt camera moves and anything else they can think of that might be perceived as edgy. Mostly, however, it’s downright ugly, with color combos suggesting high toxicity quotients.
Self-consciously trendy style, bizarre scenario, larky storytelling attitude and the lively cast combine to insure there’s always something popping onscreen; “Domino” is far from dull. But it doesn’t convince. Despite Scott’s determination not to be weighted down by biographical truth, pic’s conclusion feels muddled without it; vaguely upbeat thrust of the piece is that Domino found a role for herself that suited her — early on, she says, “My agenda is to kick ass,” and kick ass she did — but final photo of the real Domino evokes levels of sorrow and irresolution rigorously avoided by the film.