City of Ghosts

For over twenty years Matt Dillon has been acting in movies, almost all of them forgettable. He still looks great as he nears 40, and, under the right director, can turn in a competent performance. But the films in which he’s chosen to act over the years are so slight in stature that it’s impossible to know just how well he might do with a solid script and a skilled director.

Now he’s made the riskiest choice of all and stars in City of Ghosts, both the screenwriting and the directing debut of none other than–Matt Dillon. So many actors aspire to direct their own films that it’s become a Hollywood cliche. Unfortunately, there’s no assurance that two decades in front of the camera will qualify the actor to move behind it.

In City of Ghosts Dillon is Jimmy Cremmins, a hotshot New York insurance salesman whose customers have just experienced a devastating hurricane. It turns out the shady insurer is an elusive offshore operation and there’s no money to pay the claims. Jimmy is crushed with concern for the victims and flies off to Bangkok, en route to Cambodia, seeking the responsible party, one Marvin (James Caan). He has to work through another agent, Casper (Stellan Skarsgard), a Bangkok resident who also works for Marvin. He gets to Phnom Penh, where he connects with a local barkeep (Gerard Depardieu), and is subjected to a series of mysterious threats and dead ends. He also plays white knight and saves a woman (Natascha McElhone) from a beating–some romantic interest needed to be injected, even if utterly irrelevant to the rest of the story.

From there it is an ever more complicated series of betrayals, violent confrontations, red herrings and digressions. This is a relentlessly overplotted script and the characters are lacking in both definition and motivation. There are also far too many of them. It all gets muddy and confusing and suspense rapidly dissipates as the ever more banal dialogue elicits cringes of discomfort in viewers expecting more than comic book balloons.

Dillon’s performance has an undercurrent of the lost boy, brought out, but unearned, in one scene with McElhone (Solaris). (She manages to float above the rest of the film with a radiant smile.) Depardieu (Unfair Competition, CQ)gives an over-the-top performance without a center. Skarsgard (Aberdeen, Breaking the Waves) and Caan (The Yards, The Way of the Gun), both capable of a whole lot more, try their best, although Caan likely regrets his karaoke scene. Dillon throws in a romance between Skarsgard and a hooker which is a pale derivative of Michael Caine’s romance in The Quiet American.

Even Dillon the actor can’t sustain conviction with Dillon the screenwriter’s script. Dillon the director apparently was too busy rounding up odd-looking characters with scarred faces, a saintly cyclo driver, sadistic Russians, a dwarf and a larcenous monkey to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of good narrative filmmaking. City of Ghostsis being distributed by United Artists and MGM, presumably banking on Dillon’s box office draw. Big mistake. This one should disappear down any of the many holes in its plot.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.