Imagine Mallory Knox as her own reality tv show star, less inclined to take up with the absolutely wrong man, and able to handle her mascara like a pro. This only begins to describe the movie version of Domino Harvey. Grim, brutal, and aggressively romantic, Domino outlines the basics: an ingénue and model turned bounty hunter and drug addict, Harvey rejected her family—Laurence Harvey (glimpsed here on tv in The Manchurian Candidate) and model Paulene Stone (here called Sophie and played by Jacqueline Bisset)—and chose a hard, mean life.
On its lurid surface, the movie appears to celebrate this choice, loving the consequent violence and hallucinatory excesses, entangled with pop cultural references both visual and thematic. But at the same time, Domino sets the choice in a frame that indicts the broader culture that encourages it. Her previously minor celebrity (Bounty Hunter of the Year in 2003) is here turned into full-blown delirium and horror.
The real Domino Harvey was found dead of an overdose in her L.A. apartment this past June. And she appears at the very end of Tony Scott’s raucous film, her shaved head, pale complexion, and large eyes hardly matching the movie’s version of Domino. Keira Knightley remains perfectly coiffed, extravagantly made-up, and unspeakably gorgeous, even when shot through the puke-green filters that designate turmoil. Even as it grants the film an unearned weight, this last portrait of shaved-head Domino, brief and haunting, also underlines the movie’s point: show biz kills.
Written by Richard Kelly and directed by Tony Scott, Domino the movie comes hard and fast, a two-hour assault of broken bodies, harsh lights, gun blasts, and tabloidy accusations and effects. Structured as a jaunty, uneven flashback (“I’ll tell you what I know”), it follows Domino’s life story as explained to FBI Agent Taryn Miles (Lucy Liu). They flirt throughout the interview, cut intermittently into the saga and shot in alternating saturated-color close-ups, but their relationship is teaser to no clear end (though the image of Liu sharpening pencils with one of those little plastic devices is not without intrigue).
Their relationship is obscured by the film’s primary interests, which are emphatically not legalities, facts, justice, or even fleeting emotional connections. While Domino‘s focus is surely erratic, it might be best described as a reflection on media’s exploitative chronicling of crashes between the filthy rich and the dirty underclass. According to Domino, she early on missed her dead dad and disdained Sophie’s “90210 world” (to demonstrate, the movie shows her mom asking teenaged Domino to stop playing—expertly—with her nun-chucks during a polite pool party). Following a short stint as a model (“Boring” reads the text over her runaway moment) and her expulsion from college for breaking a bouncy sorority girl’s nose, Domino recounts, she took up bounty hunting.
She gets this idea, in the movie version, by way of a whim, a newspaper ad and a churchy “seminar” that extols the thrills of the job. She catches the speakers at this seminar—veteran hunter Ed (who says he used to be in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band, played by the irrefutable Mickey Rourke) and psycho killer Choco (described as having “wires crossed somewhere in his soul,” and played by Ed Ramirez)—running off with fees taken from wannabes before the seminar is over. Infuriated for some reason, Domino stands in an alley, blocking their getaway and throwing a knife in their windshield. Ed is impressed. When Choco complains, skeptical and resentful that his very own daddy figure is adopting a second homeless child, Ed explains, more or less patiently. Though the two of them look like losers on their own, “Add her to the equation and you know what they’ll be saying: ‘There go two of the coolest motherfuckers on the face of the earth.’” Choco goes along, as does an Afghani refugee and explosives expert they call Alf (Rizwan Abbasi) because his name is too hard to pronounce.
Domino proves her worth on her first job. Faced with the likelihood of a catastrophic shootout with a slew of inked up gangmembers who won’t give up the whereabouts of a fellow, she offers to lap-dance the leader. The performance is what it is, all fast cuts and ogling shots, but the scene re-introduces a pervasive theme, that none of what you’re actually looking at can be taken for a real event. On the most obvious level, the two possibilities you see—the shootout where everyone dies and the lap-dance with hooting onlookers and the information payoff—approximate Domino’s “philosophy” of life, that everything’s a coin toss, with 50-50 chance of survival or demise.
More interestingly, however, the scene underlines the film’s general strategy: nothing and everything is true in celebreality. This was the world into which Domino was born. Never innocent, never alone, she fights back against the demands of this world to no avail. Her success in her new career, her starry background, and her stunning appearance all lead to the movie’s most bizarre and derivative turn, when the team brings along tv cameras on their adventures (cf. Natural Born Killers). They’re appearing in a WB reality show called The Bounty Squad, hosted by Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green (Domino being quite unable after all to escape “that 90210 world”).
It’s not even an aside to say the boys are incredible (and apparently good sports, given the abuse their images take), easily the film’s stuntiest of much stunt casting (Dabney Coleman as a Las Vegas casino owner, Christopher Walken as the reality tv producer named Mark, Tom Waits as a character called only “the Wanderer”). Intimidated and titillated by Ed, they don’t much pretend to be fearless, and Ziering complains loudly when Domino breaks his nose for asking about her “performance.” The dilemma of playing yourself—in various senses—pops up frequently in the film, as Domino both blows off and embraces her scandalous fate simultaneously.
The film allows viewers to indulge in fantasies of redemption and self-awareness, but more as an afterthought than a purpose. Sure, Domino is sad when her goldfish dies and you get the point of an impending end, but the image is dropped in the mix along with everything else, none of it sustained as conventional plot. Yes, there’s a bit of business concerning a $10 million armored truck heist, and a set of Halloween-masked suspects resembling and called the First Ladies (cf. the underappreciated Point Break), a bail bondsman named Claremont Williams III (Delroy Lindo) (cf. The Mod Squad), and a gnarly gangster (Stanley Kamel), who loves his inept sons to death (cf. the Gottis and any number of other infamous models). And yes, they all lead to standard, if garishly imaged, action—a druggy sex scene, an arm cut off with a machete, multiple explosions, car chases, and shootouts. But none of these elements seems so compelling as the whole, at once less and more than its parts.
Domino maps mythology, not as a means to heroic or sympathetic characters, and certainly not to narrative resolution. Instead, it maps possibilities, nightmares, tv, the construction of viewer desires and the pathetic irrelevance of reality. It’s not news, but it is hectic, gaudy, and true enough.