I can’t quite shake the feeling that lurking somewhere in Matt Dillon’s CITY OF GHOSTS, there?s a pretty good movie trying to get out. It’s not unlike a block of raw marble that harbors within it perhaps not La Pieta, but something that wouldn’t look out of place in the outer galleries of a mid-sized metropolis’ art gallery. All the elements are here for a Graham Greene-style mystery set in the Far East, Cambodia, with a smart but not savvy foreigner, Dillon, who also directed and co-wrote, not to mention a supporting cast of colorful characters, of whom the safest assumption to be made is that they can be counted on to have ulterior motives, even the monkey. Alas, the plot is as murky as the nefarious goings-on depicted and the running time tests the patience of even the most patient of viewers.
It all starts so well, too. An American insurance company comes up short and larcenous after a natural disaster and, Jimmy, its golden boy, that would be Dillon, sets out to single-handedly make things right. This involves traveling to Thailand and then Cambodia, where he’s robbed, beaten, and generally taken advantage of by every ex-pat in sight. There are a lot of those, as though someone figured that if two eccentrics are good, a dozen is even better. Hence, among infinitely lesser types, such as the Brit who’s absorbing Cambodia’s culture pharmaceutically, there’s the squirrelly guy in the wheelchair with the non-existent shrapnel in his neck, and leading the pack, Gerard Depardieu in the role that shows us where his career should be moving, a walrusy and bombastic innkeeper who wails on his unruly clientele while he carries a wailing toddler on his hip. There is also Natascha McElhone as a British art conservationist righting the pillaging that went on during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. She’s also symptomatic of the plodding of the script. An extra subplot thrown in so that Dillon can kiss someone because, I guess, when the star is in the sultry tropics, there’s gotta be a romance and art restoration types are a novelty. At least we’re spared the Suzie Wong-esque entanglement that Stellan Skarsgard’s perpetually cranky character adds. Far more interesting is trying to figure out where his character’s accent is supposed to be from.
Though the script is ploddingly bloated, as though all involved were having such a good time on their Asiatic idyll that they kept filming more footage as an excuse to stay, the performances are good, particularly James Caan as Marvin, the mastermind of many schemes but perhaps not the master of them of them. He’s an actor with an appealing and sympathetic world-weariness to him that projects a seen-it-all attitude with just a touch of wistfulness. And you have to admire the way he sings karaoke in Cambodian with such conviction. Dillon is ripening into a quintessential noir hero, with heavy brows, deep-set eyes and a moral ambiguity that can work both sides of the ethical street. He also shows promise as a director. A scene where a smiling child drops a bag with contents unknown and probably icky on Depardieu’s bar is a classic set piece as everyone shrinks from wanting to open it while still maintaining the fiction of their manly courage. Dillon plays it out, creating tension that ends with a bang and something of a surprise. He also does a credible job of using the locales, mixing the mystique of the culture and the mystery of the story with the physical manifestations of the decay that imperialism tends to leave in its wake.
The same can not be said of his writing, though, to be fair, his credit is as a co-writer. Still, as the director in charge of things such as the tedious exchanges between Jimmy and his loyal Cambodian driver Sok (Sereyvuth Kem), the ones that echo similar pre-PC exchanges between The Lone Ranger and Tonto, the finger of blame must be pointed firmly at Mr. Dillon. Though he shows inklings of promise here, he hasn’t manifested enough to justify CITY OF GHOST?s almost two-hour running time. He has, however, manifested enough for me to want to see him get another shot, albeit a probationary one.