Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 18, 2003 12:56 am 
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Unconventional directorial debut by Matt Dillon

Jimmy (Matt Dillon) works for an insurance company that's investigated by the FBI with special focus on him after a storm disaster reveals the company can't pay the claims because the money in offshore funds has evaporated. He knows a guy named Melvin is behind this scam, which he's tied into somehow himself, and he skips the country to go to Thailand where he meets sweaty, nervous Casper (Stellan Skarsgård) in Bangkok, who tells him Melvin (James Caan, Dillon's real dad in the story) is in Cambodia. In Phnom Penh Dillon hangs out at a bar and hotel run by Gérard Depardieu and meets Sophie (Natasha McElhone) in the café outside when she's fighting with a creep who's stolen a Buddha from a temple. Dillon quickly loses his passport to another creep and his sunglasses are stolen by a monkey in his hotel room. Fat, sleazy Depardieu is always beating up on somebody or kicking some low level expat out of his bar. Dillon always looks wrecked and quickly gets beat up, but keeps his keen edge and trim physique in evidence throughout. Jimmy meets a nice cyclo (pedicab) driver named Sok who becomes his one trustworthy friend. A note sent him at the bar takes Dillon to a pretty nasty looking, but pretty authentic seeming whorehouse to meet Marvin, but he gets knocked out instead. Buddhist temples, monks, cute children, cyclos and exotic looking critters of all sorts are pretty thick on the ground throughout this film which gets an A for atmosphere, if nothing else.

Later Marvin arrives, saying the note wasn't his. It's James Caan, and that's a relief, since finally somebody onscreen seems relaxed and confident. Melvin has plans to team up with a variety of nasties, including an unctuous general, to build a casino out in the country 400 clicks from Phnom Penh. He's using the insurance scam money for this. Casper complains when Melvin gives Jimmy a paltry sum and tells him to scram. Jimmy sticks around, and so does Casper. Melvin has a meeting with his investors in some kind of dance hall out in the bush, which is very David Lynch, with very ugly people, grinning midgets, and Caan singing Karaoke in fluent Cambodian. They have to wait, but again Caan is relaxed, while his associates get lured outside and offed. Casper shows up and, seeing a corpse, flees in somebody's Mercedes. (Later Jimmy gives this car to Sok, who also winds up with a lot of the swag.) Jimmy has a history of cons, following the teachings of Melvin since he grew up, but he is determined to go straight now and turns into a real Robin Hood.

A small boy plunks a canvas bag with a lower leg and foot in it on Depardieu's bar with a note indicating that Melvin is being held for ransom. The rest of the film is about Jimmy rescuing Melvin after they've seen a scary videotape of two of the café creeps of the early scenes getting offed and Melvin with a bloody stump pleading for them to cooperate and bring lots of cash. Along the way Jimmy, who has been getting increasingly friendly with the chic, lovely McElhone, visits a temple with her where international hippies spend the night dancing and a druggie guy who travels with a blonde friend of Sophie's gets offed by a local who works for Casper. It turns out they were trying to get Jimmy. Russian gangsters, who appear only in lightning cameos, are also after Melvin for a payoff for the insurance scam.

Melvin has earlier had a suitcase full of dollars delivered to Jimmy, and now Jimmy takes this along in the Mercedes, with Sok and Casper, heading out to where Melvin is being held. The arrangements are made by the sleazy general and a large amount of cash is left in a Bo tree that's picked up by a small boy on an ox. At the end it all turns out to be another scam by the crooked general with collaboration from Melvin, who looks fit and freshly shaved and has both legs intact. They apparently wanted to get all the money back from Jimmy and escape from the casino deal, which has gone bad. Who really knows?

Jimmy follows the boy on the ox, and he and Casper wind up in a scene where the general, Melvin, and Jimmy all shoot at each other simultaneously with pistols, Tarentino/John Woo style. Casper runs off, Melvin is fatally wounded in the chest, and Sok comes back to help for the second or third time. Melvin dies in the Mercedes and Jimmy buries him in a river by sending out a canoe full of rocks and shooting holes in it. I didn't know you could do that. Jimmy goes off into the country to see Natasha-- he has gotten his passport back from Melvin -- and Sok comes home to his family in Phnom Penh with half the swag.

No doubt about the fact that this finale doesn't make much sense, except that the theme of breaking away from a sleazy father is brought to a close. The film has a high quotient of tense and nasty moments though, and the very lack of sense may help emphasize the very real craziness of an exotic, rather scary, very poor country as it would appear to an American just arrived there or coming back for a second visit, as Matt Dillon was. 'City of Ghosts' excels above most films in the vividness of its atmosphere, which blends 'Apocalypse Now' with David Lynch with literary overtones and still seems authentically Cambodian. Maybe Dillon isn't any more a great director than he is a great actor, but this project doesn't look conventional: it has some bite in it.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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