A shamelessly violent, exploitative biopic about a beautiful bounty hunter.

Published October 14, 2005 2:00PM (EDT)

There's no sensible way to defend "Domino," Tony Scott's kind-of biopic about real-life bounty hunter Domino Harvey, a one-time fashion model who decided chasing down fugitives was more her thing. Migraine sufferers, be sure to bring your Imitrex as a hedge against all the zip-gun cutting and the panoply of solarized colors that reflect almost nothing found in nature. Also be prepared for excessive use of noisy weapons and explosives, and child cancer victims employed as pathos-milking devices. You might also want to know that even though the plot eventually makes sense -- or at least a kind of sense -- it's nearly impossible to follow without drawing a little diagram for yourself.

But other than all that, what's not to like about "Domino"? Unlike Scott's last picture, the obscenely sadistic "Man on Fire," "Domino" is scrupulously honest about its own disreputability. This is a movie that opens with a rough, tough bounty hunter (played by the fabulous Mickey Rourke) taking aim at the snarling watchdog that's going for him. We hear the blast and see the cloud of smoke and figure the dog is a goner, until we see him scampering away to safety. The pup accounted for, Scott draws our attention to a severed human arm, blood still dripping from its jagged selvage, with an important padlock combination tattooed on it. At the very least, this is a movie that knows where its priorities lie.

The real Domino was the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey (who died of cancer when she was 4) and model Pauline Stone. She grew up in London and spent time there as a young adult before moving to Los Angeles, where her mother had moved after her remarriage. There Domino tried out several careers, including firefighting and working on a ranch, before signing on with Celes King Bail Bonds in South Central Los Angeles. Scott met Domino more than 10 years ago, when he first approached her about making a highly fictionalized movie about her life, and the two became friends.

Domino, who had a history of drug addiction, died suddenly last June while awaiting trial on federal drug-trafficking charges. The movie doesn't address either her drug-addiction or her death, which was a smart and sensitive choice on Scott's part. The picture is an exercise in exploitation joi de vivre, and your enjoyment of it will depend on your tolerance for shameless, reckless, unredemptive violence with relatively little artistic or spiritual value. After all, there's a time and a place for everything.

Domino is played here by Keira Knightley, and our first glimpse of her is all ragamuffin glamour: She's been through something rough (her lip is bloodied; a cigarette dangles stylishly from her fingers), and she's being queried by a scary-sexy criminal psychologist (Lucy Liu) -- the lesbian undertones ring out like the Star Spangled Banner. The story unfolds in flashback, and we learn how devastated Domino was by her father's early death, how much Domino hated school (there's a delectably perverse sorority-house sequence in which she slugs a snooty, abusive sister), and how she met her two closest friends and comrades, Ed (played by Rourke) and Choco (the carnally handsome Edgar Ramirez). These three form a makeshift family, rounding up bad guys for a living; they're well aware that it's risky work, but they love every minute of it.

"Domino" starts out as a loud, abrasive patchwork of a movie and gets louder and more abrasive as it moves along. In fact, it's most compelling at the beginning, when it focuses most clearly on Domino herself. (The script was written by Richard Kelly, director and writer of the wonderful "Donnie Darko," and Steve Barancik, although there doesn't seem to be much actual writing here, at least compared with cutting.)

Knightley, with her sullen pout and thatch of new-wave hair, gives us a carefully observed character study here. The problem is, we don't get to see much of it: Most of whatever it is she's doing happens between the cutting. Still, she's a strong presence -- this is a case of an actor's sending out the kind of vibes that the camera can't help but pick up.

Rourke has always been a provocative, arresting actor, and he's becoming even more so. His face has a meaty roughness to it, but his spirit has plenty of scrappy elegance. "Why would a delicate thing like you want to be a goddamn bounty hunter?" he asks Domino when he first meets her, eyeing her svelte figure and tiny, leathery (though infinitely practical) outfit. His voice is a barbed-wire rasp, but there's a gallantry behind the directness of his question, like a glass of champagne chased with beer.

"Domino" also features a crazy pinwheel of supporting characters, including comedian Mo'Nique as a no-foolin'-around DMV clerk, Rizwan Abbasi as the bounty hunters' Afghan driver, and Christopher Walken as a reality-TV honcho. (There's also a small role for the weird yet fascinating Macy Gray.) Although it's hard for any of these actors to be heard amid the movie's clutter, some of them -- particularly the hard-to-squelch Mo'Nique -- manage to make an audible squeak over the din.

It's hard to say whether "Domino" comes remotely close to the real story of Domino Harvey. At the end of the movie, Scott shows us the real Domino, a striking, charismatic-looking figure with a direct stare and a blondish crop of hair. Admittedly, "Domino," even if you're generous about its entertainment value, isn't the best epitaph a person who died before her time could ask for. But that brief glimpse of the real Domino suggests she had a mischievous sense of humor, and if nothing else, "Domino" has a sense of humor about itself, too. It might give you a headache, but at least you'll be able to laugh through the pain.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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