And then there are directors like Michael Bay, Simon West, Adrian Lyne, Paul Verhoeven and Tony Scott; directors who have taken big-budget Hollywood schlock to new and shocking depths (or heights?) of pandering to the mainstream. So dogged in their pursuits of giant box-office returns, these directors have sold their souls, abandoning the integrity of the auteur style in a Mephistophelean bid to create cinema so crass, vulgar and direct that it has the ability to burn itself in the brains of cinema-goers worldwide, spoiling them for subtler pleasures forever. It's not so much that these directors lack style or vision, as their films often prove that they have tremendous talent and style to burn, it's that they have decided to use their talent for indefensible causes.
Though in some sense, it could be argued that this kind of profiteering has existed since the early days of cinema, I would argue that the modern beginning of this particular trend was the 1986 release of Top Gun. A more visually stunning, conspicuously expensive and dramatically inauthentic film had never before been released by a Hollywood studio, and the film's tremendous box office success pretty much ushered in this new generation of filmmakers. A new "anything is permissable in the pursuit of the bottom line" philosophy began to pervade big Hollywood productions, along with an even more distressing Reagen-era focus on American military propagandism, machismo, patriotic imperialism and consumerism.
Although the success of Top Gun is more famously (and perhaps rightly) attributed to its infamous producers Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, the director of Top Gun was in fact Tony Scott, the younger brother of director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, et. al.). The film's outstanding visual element is largely due to Scott, who overloaded the film with flashy visuals, technological fetishism, short-attention-span montage, a pounding rock soundtrack and an oft-discussed, none-too-subtle undercurrent of homoeroticism. The result was one of cinema's largest turds, but also one of its most consistently fascinating to deconstruct. Since making Top Gun, Tony Scott has proven to be as ambitious as his older brother and his contemporaries, trying his hand at bringing his trademark big-budget sneaker commercial sheen to formulaic pablum like Days of Thunder, a couple of tense Tarantino-scripted action thrillers (True Romance and Crimson Tide), as well as the occasional Hollywood script so banal it is positively surreal (The Last Boy Scout).
Put Tony Scott's newest non-masterpiece Domino in this last category, as it is a film so determined to top its own wretched excesses that it boils over into a new level of shit-into-art transcendence. Domino is what happens when a group of producers, screenwriters and directors finally abandon all sense of decency, and realize that in our postmodern consumer age, audiences no longer require any linearity, plausibility or even basic narrative logic; all they really need is a collection of bombastic scenes that flicker by like an ADHD-sufferer's most fevered and delirious wet dream. One scene need not follow another in an even slightly logical way, as long as every scene exacts a violent collision on the eyes, leaving the viewer paralyzed in a passive, comatose state, being brutally mind-raped by a series of disconnected, surrealistic show-stopping sequences that don't add up to anything in the end. The really frightening thing is not that Tony Scott and company have figured out a way to sidestep all of the traditional hallmarks of cinematic narrative; it is how effective the film actually is, how by some alchemical miracle it actually achieves some kind of glorious accidental transcendence not shared by previous attempts at such a filmmaking feat. I had previously thought that Michael Bay's stunning one-two punch of Armageddon and Bad Boys II could never be topped, but I was clearly wrong.
Tony Scott out-Bays Bay (himself a Scott imitator), by making a film in which the story—very loosely "based" on the real-life bounty hunter and daughter of actor Lawrence Harvery—is not even secondary to the film's frenetic visual style, it doesn't even place or show. The "story" of Domino is really just a loose, pliable framework around which Tony Scott and crew can engage in a nonstop orgy of indulgence, letting loose a stream of unconnected comedic moments, shallow meditations on media and reality television, moments of outrageously graphic violence, utterly incongruous celebrity cameos and dialogue so stunningly cliched it should occasion the creation of a new Academy Awards category for Best Recycled Screenplay.
For fans of Bruckheimer, Bay and Scott, there are plenty of familiar moments here that strike that perfect discordant note of utter ridiculousness; but even if you're very familiar with their filmic lexicon, Domino has got some surprises in store. It's worth mentioning that this film was scripted by Richard Kelly, writer and director of cult sensation Donnie Darko, a film that was similarly postmodern, absurdist and fragmentary, but with an elegance and integrity wholly lacking from this screenplay. In the course of the film's grossly indulgent two-hour-plus running time, I was treated to an unnecessary scene in which a man's arm is blown off and ripped out of its socket for absolutely no discernable reason; an extended mescaline-fueled respite in the Nevada desert in which Tom Waits seems to play some sort of spectral psychedelic prophet; gratuitous insert shots of goldfish, spinning coins, male and female cleavage, hardcore pornography and the Virgin Mary; an extended scene in which a completely tangential character appears on Jerry Springer's three-ring circus in order to promote new racial subcategories such as "Blactino" and "Chinegro"; awkward, context-less references to The Manchurian Candidate; a clumsy attempt at clever stunt casting by having Ian Ziering and Brain Austin Green of Beverly Hills: 90210 play themselves as a pair of cocky Hollywood has-beens; a pair of shamefully racist characterizations of Middle Eastern characters as incorrigible, lovable, compulsive bombers; a "plot" so convoluted, labyrinthine and riddled with deus ex machina, it seems to have been created merely to disguise the fact that there is no actual plot; a distractingly experimental soundtrack filled with echoes, loops and unexplained disembodied noises and voices; and sub-Tarantino banter that takes a stab at cleverness, but end up getting drowned out by the film's relentless sturm und drang.
To explain how this all fits together would not only be superfluous, it would be completely impossible. Because it doesn't fit together at all. Scott just throws a collection of barely connected scenes up on the screen hoping that something will stick, barely managing to glue it all together with nausea-inducing jump-cut editing and a pounding soundtrack full of pitched-down voices yelling "Muthafucka!" repeatedly. By the time the final scene rolls around, as the Las Vegas Stratosphere Hotel explodes in a giant fireball, killing off 95% of the film's characters, it's doubtful that the audience even cares, most of them having been reduced to drooling zombies. The explosion is totally unmotivated by the film's narrative and seems to have been included only as a way of putting a punctuation mark at the end of a senseless and absurd spectacle. I know that much of what I have said about Tony Scott and Domino might lead readers to believe that I harbor nothing but ill will towards director and film, but in fact this is not the case. I enjoyed this film immensely, and would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in acquainting themselves with the likely future trajectory for popular film. These kinds of films are perhaps the most interesting to deconstruct and place in the context of the current American political and cultural climate
I've accused Bruckheimer, Scott, Bay and their ilk of being motivated solely by the financial bottom line, when in fact this is somewhat unfair, as almost all commercially released films share this motivation. The thing that makes this group of filmmakers special is the ferocious, uncompromising way in which they chase this goal, even unafraid at times to leave their public far behind. There's a reason that The Criterion Collection - the paragon of home video labels, releasing only the most important classic, foreign, arthouse and indie films on classy DVD editions—has seen fit to release two Michael Bay films on its imprint. Doubtless the folks at Criterion have seen and understood the importance of these films in modern cinematic history. To prove that Domino is somewhat ahead of its time, the film has experienced very disappointing numbers at the box office (it only ranked 7th opening weekend, and it's been declining rapidly ever since), which could either be blamed on the bad reviews, or the fact that moviegoers just aren't prepared for a film that has such depraved indifference for its own audience. Tony Scott, I applaud you, and await your next "masterpiece" with baited breath.
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