In one of his earliest (and best) films, the 1974 cult musical Phantom of the Paradise, director Brian De Palma conjured a self-fulfilling prophecy, telling the story of an artist whose personal vision is co-opted and commercialized by industry star-makers while he's doomed to haunt the rafters. And for most of the four-plus decades since, De Palma has been in and out of favor in Hollywood, squandering the goodwill from hits like Carrie, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible with films like The Fury, Casualties of War and Snake Eyes. Eventually, studios simply stopped making the perverse Hitchcockian thrillers and satires that were the director's stock in trade.
Without financing in the U.S., De Palma has spent most of the current century looking for money in Europe, a more hospitable place creatively, but less reliable on the production and distribution front. While his 2002 thriller Femme Fatale played deliciously on Hitchcock's Vertigo and neo-noir trash like Basic Instinct, his angry 2007 experiment Redacted was an undernourished attempt to update Casualties of War for Iraq; and Passion, his alternately brilliant and banal 2012 English-language version of the French hit Love Crime, was mostly shuffled to video on demand.
Now, De Palma has been issuing warnings about his new film Domino, a Danish production that he claims didn't originate with him and was the most horrible movie set he has ever experienced. And plenty of evidence of a patch job is on display here, especially as the film actively yawns its way through a muddled plot about the conflict between Danish police and the CIA over an ISIS mastermind. It is both thrillingly and painfully obvious which sequences pique De Palma's interest and which ones don't, but fans of the director's work might be surprised by how much of his sensibility survives intact.
Always an underrated satirist, De Palma locks into the concept of terrorist-as-filmmaker and the careful staging and orchestration that goes into turning beheadings and suicide bombings into propagandistic art. With cameras attached to machine guns and remote-controlled drones, and earpieces distributed among his crew, ISIS leader Salah Al Din (Mohammed Azaay) is not much different from Francis Ford Coppola sitting in front of a bank of monitors in his trailer on One From the Heart, issuing directives to his cast and crew. For De Palma, the movies can be a deadly art.
The hunt for Al Din starts with a murder in Copenhagen. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known for playing Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, stars as Christian, a cop who makes the fateful mistake of leaving his gun in his apartment. In a superb sequence, Christian and his partner Lars (Soren Malling) respond to a distress call in an apartment building, but when Christian borrows Lars' gun, he leaves him defenseless to an attack by the suspect they apprehend. That suspect, Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney, of Femme Fatale), turns out to be under the influence of Al Din, who has kidnapped his family and forced him to do his bidding on multiple operations.
Though suspended for his negligence on the job and forbidden to follow up on the crime that leaves Lars clinging to life, Christian nonetheless pursues Tarzi and Al Din, joined by Alex (Carice van Houten, another Games of Thrones vet), who was Lars' secret lover for years. On top of the administrative obstacles to their goal, they also face a challenge from Joe Martin (Guy Pearce), a CIA officer who doesn't want a target of Al Din's importance to be left to the Danish justice system. His trump card is Tarzi, who he has captured and activated for his own operation, turning the suspect into an unwilling double agent.
What little time Domino spends on ISIS' ideological motives renders them crudely, like the sneering villains from a generic terrorist thriller from a decade ago. De Palma doesn't care about geopolitics, and he also doesn't care about the relationship between Christian and Alex or the affair that has upended their lives. His actors seem utterly stranded by his indifference, too, in case anyone might get excited about a Game of Thrones reunion just weeks after the series finale. De Palma always takes a strong hand in emphasizing the themes and set pieces that mean the most to him, but rarely has he yadda-yadda-ed so many scenes away.
Yet there are a couple of terrific clips for the highlight reel, starting with the botched arrest at the apartment building, which has Christian chasing his suspect across rooftops and hanging off gutters, and ending with a finale in a bullfighting ring. With two different law enforcement teams descending on a terrorist plot with multiple threats and outcomes, all monitored and directed via small cameras and screens, De Palma goes to work, building suspense on multiple planes of action. For him, modern terrorism is the ultimate example of film's complicity in violence, with the camera as a tool for destruction and recruitment. Domino may be a for-fans-only proposition, but at these moments, it's obvious why he has fans.