Brian De Palma has used the Italian film composer Pino Donaggio on and off for over 40 years, ever since their first (and still greatest) collaboration, “Carrie,” in 1976. Donaggio, with his lushly purple neo-Bernard Herrmann dissonant extravagance, is to De Palma what Angelo Badalamenti has been to David Lynch: a composer of rapturous dread-infused melodies that evoke a kind of meta-romantic Old Hollywood delirium. Yet to hear the unmistakable sounds of yet another lavishly orchestrated Donaggio swoonfest laid over the flat, static expository scenes of the choppy benumbed “international” police thriller “Domino” is to watch De Palma trying to create cinematic fire out of burnt-out match sticks.
There are legendary examples of directors claiming that their work was cut to ribbons by clueless producers: the 1954 George Cukor version of “A Star Is Born” (though in that case, the studio-butchered rendition is actually better), or Jonathan Demme’s “Swing Shift.” But what are we to make of a movie like “Domino,” which De Palma has claimed was taken away from him and re-edited — yet the version that’s been put into theaters, and mostly dumped to VOD, is such a limp assemblage of cop-movie conventions that it’s hard to imagine what any version of this film could have added up to.
An early sequence has a glint of De Palma flamboyance. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, as a beat cop in Copenhagen, gets so caught up in bidding goodbye to his lusty girlfriend that he forgets to take his gun, which the camera slow-zooms in on as if it were the fateful key in “Notorious.” Then, after he and his partner (Søren Malling) answer a call about a domestic dispute, they discover not a violent husband but a terrorist (Eriq Ebouaney) who looks like a late-’60s militant, and who slashes the partner’s throat, at which point Coster-Waldau — abandoning all common sense, but then you could argue he did that when he used his “Game of Thrones” downtime to star in a low-budget De Palma film — pursues the attacker across a treacherously angled roof with clattery tiles that keep slipping off. By the time he’s dangling from a drainpipe, we realize that the entire sequence is just a thin excuse for De Palma to sample “Vertigo.” But in that “Is he really going to go there again?” De Palma way, at least it’s interesting to watch.
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The drama of not-so-hot pursuit that follows is far from interesting. To be honest, it’s deadly. It’s sketchy and contrived and, at times, incomprehensible, and while it’s possible that the head-scratch factor is the result of the producers’ re-editing, what seems likelier is that De Palma turned in a cut that had the frantic illogic of a movie like “Snake Eyes” (which this one sort of does), and that the money people tried to exert some damage control, which didn’t work, because it seldom works.
Even when we can tell what’s going on in “Domino,” there’s a sense of the tail of De Palma’s intentions wagging the dog of a plot. Guy Pearce, as a CIA heavy whose drawl is used like a ’70s corruption signifier, fastens onto the terrorist (who has a personal agenda) and starts to work with him, but the movie is more interested in what this union represents — the United States is in bed with forces it claims to oppose! Noam Chomsky would watch this and agree! — then in how it plays out logistically. There’s a genre that “Domino” is in, and it’s exemplified by the “Bourne” films. This is like a “Bourne” thriller reduced to a game of paper football.
In addition to that “Vertigo” fanfare, the movie has other De Palma tics, like binocular POV shots (I’m not an expert in underground terrorist technology, but does anyone use binoculars anymore?), or a conversation set in front of a windmill that’s shot to evoke “Foreign Correspondent,” or the one sequence in the movie that I honestly liked: a terrorist (Sachli Gholamalizad), her training complete, goes out to perform her suicide mission — an attack staged at a film festival in Amsterdam that’s shot to look like the red-carpet stairway at Cannes. We get some trademark De Palma split screen: on one side, the terrorist’s face (she looks haunted — a nice touch), and on the other side what she sees and is filming, a first-person-shooter POV image of her machine gun ripping through celebrity swells at a movie premiere. The message is supposed to be that terrorism has become a form of cinema, but only De Palma would combine jihad, video games, and the first mass shooting at a film festival to evoke…what? The apocalypse of cinephilia? Actually, that feeling is evoked well enough by the rest of “Domino.”
There’s one other “vintage” De Palma sequence: the climax set at a Spanish bullfight. The way it’s staged, it could have been just about any packed sporting event, with a terrorist posing as a roving stadium concession salesman counting down to exploding his bombs, as a drone camera hovers to film it all. Here, at last, is the De Palma money shot: the gliding slow-mo, the sensualized anguish of the impending attack, the replay of what he’s been replaying ever since the prom sequence of “Carrie.” As a director, Brian De Palma lives for these sequences, and as much as I’ve complained about his movies over the years, when they’re happening the films are alive. When they’re not happening, you can feel the agony of De Palma going back to the drawing board.