City of Ghosts is actor Matt Dillon’s directorial debut and he’s gone at it like someone who doesn’t know if he’s ever going to get a second shot, slathering style and moody asides over an old-fashioned thieves-falling-out plot. Dillon co-wrote the story with pulp writer Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart) and it has the kind of B-movie plot that seems more complicated than it is (because of the delayed way the viewer is given information), and that’s hinged on the monumentally boring crime of insurance fraud. One can imagine this as an old black-and-white picture with, say, John Hodiak and Hedy Lamarr, less literally colorful than what we have here, but in some essential way the same.
Dillon plays Jimmy Cremmins, a con man who develops a conscience of sorts after his latest scam leaves scores of people homeless and without prospects (he hadn’t counted on that major hurricane). As the FBI closes in on him, Jimmy decides to go look up his old boss and mentor, Marvin (James Caan), to collect money owed and settle some old scores. Marvin happens to be in Phnom Penh and the way the movie casually jump-cuts Jimmy from Big City, America, to seedy southeast Asia is part of the its old-school charm. And though it’s a setting which comes with a lot of post-Vietnam, as well as post-Coppola/Conrad metaphorical baggage, the mysterious Orient’s main function here is to serve as an exotic stand-in for the universal urban dark alley, or any other risky place to be avoided.
I mention these old B-movie conventions not to deride the film, but because I think that’s the best way it can be appreciated. Once in Phnom Penh, Jimmy, in his search for Marvin, encounters various colorful characters, including an unstable wreck of a bartender played by Gerard Depardieu and a fellow con man who oozes duplicity, played by Stellan Skarsgård. Balancing these out are the romantic interest (Natascha MacElhone) and the faithful man Friday (Kem Sereyvuth). Caan, after a big buildup, finally appears and is something of a letdown, just another over-the-hill hustler.
City of Ghosts is decent pulp wrapped up in a pretentious package. Dillon, his youthful and callow good looks finally starting to be replaced by a face that looks a little more lived-in, makes a decent anti-hero-lite — and few actors can bellow like Depardieu or break into a guilty sweat like Skarsgård. But there’s not much going on here beneath the story’s improbable surface. And the whole thing, which runs nearly two hours, could have benefited from another old B-movie virtue, namely tightness.
Showing exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Woodward Ave., S. of Maple). Call 248-644-3456.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.