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    City of Ghosts

    Misguided tour

    Matt Dillon's directorial debut "City of Ghosts" unfortunately keeps its Cambodian setting at arm's length and its characters on the far side of believability.


    I knew that I would have trouble with "City of Ghosts" when I got the press kit. Actor Matt Dillon's first foray into directing and writing takes place and was filmed in Cambodia. The press kit emphasized this point, stating that Southeast Asia has been the locale for writers like Joseph Conrad, author of "Heart of Darkness," the novella adapted by Francis Ford Coppola for the classic Vietnam War movie "Apocalypse Now."

    Directed by: Matt Dillon.
    Written by: Matt Dillon, Barry Gifford.
    Cast: Matt Dillon, James Caan, Natascha McElhone, GŽrard Depardieu, Kem Sereyvuth, Stellan SkarsgŒrd, Rose Byrne, Shawn Andrews, Chalee Sankhavesa, Christopher Curry, Robert Campbell, Bernard Merklen, Jack Shearer, Kirk Fox, Abhijati Jusqkul.

    Related links: Official site
    But Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" didn't take place in Vietnam. It took place in Africa's Belgian Congo.

    Technically, the press information is correct. Conrad did write about Southeast Asia — it's mentioned in two of his short stories and another short novella, none as widely read (or as well written) as "Heart of Darkness." But those works had less to do with Southeast Asia than with the boat that the characters were on. Conrad based those stories on his experiences working as a young adult at sea. Conrad's characters could have been sailing anywhere, because in all of these works the main backdrop wasn't Southeast Asia, it was the ship on which they traveled.

    City of Ghosts  
    The problem with "City of Ghosts" is that the locale is supposedly Cambodia, but the movie never gets off the boat.

    The plot: Jimmy (Dillon) works the sales end of a bogus homeowner's insurance operation. When homeowners put in claims following a hurricane — and the federal government gets wind of the fraud — Jimmy flees the country in search of the head of the scam, Marvin (James Caan). The flight takes him to Bangkok, then to Cambodia.

    At times, the movie is difficult to follow. Marvin's henchman Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgard) says Marvin has been a father figure to Jimmy from the beginning, but their interactions don't back up Kaspar's claim. Kaspar also states that Cambodia is mysterious, dangerous and a different world than anywhere, but Jimmy remains unaffected by these exotic surroundings. The incidents that take place — a mugging at a brothel, murder at an outdoor rave — could as easily happen a few blocks from Times Square as in the disintegrating stone buildings of Phnom Penh.

    And the romance between Jimmy and the beautiful, nomadic historical preservation expert Sophie (Natascha McElhone) feels flat and meaningless, not even about the sex. Dillon's Jimmy says he's inspired to change his ways, but he sounds like Tom Brokaw reporting the news, not a lovestruck man fighting for his life.

    There are a few actors that belong in Cambodia. Local Cambodian bicycle-taxi driver Sok is played by real Cambodian bicycle-taxi driver Sereyvuth Kem. Although he is believable as the helpful local, his expressions convey "I can't believe these Americans are paying me money to run behind this tree" more than the character's desire to save a naive American's life.

      City of Ghosts
    Minor and extra roles played by local oddities (famous midget actor, local weirdo, teenage prostitutes, religious monks and Red Cross nurses) aren't emphasized enough to give the film the gritty texture that director Dillon strives for. Even the corrupt general who wants to use Marvin's insurance cash to build a casino in the middle of the jungle (replete with machine guns and anti-aircraft weaponry for the building's protection) seems more the caricature of a corrupt military officer than a specifically Cambodian general.

    The characters' lack of depth — especially Dillon's Jimmy — can be blamed on an overextended first-time director. It's difficult and complicated to write about a foreign place, even if the characters are supposed to be strangers in a strange land. As an actor, it's difficult to portray the feelings involved in a father-son conflict. And it's nearly impossible to shoot an entire film in a Third World country. To tackle all three at the same time? It's a testament to Dillon's tenacity that "City of Ghosts" got made at all.

    One character felt true to life: Emile, the French expat hotel/bar owner played by Gerard Depardieu. Depardieu's Emile is fat, sweaty, rude, arrogant, strange, and absolutely fascinating to watch. You can almost smell the mix of his body odor, garlic and booze radiating off the screen. As soon as Emile appeared, I didn't care what happened to Jimmy, Marvin and Kaspar, or give a flying fig if they'd ever find the money. I wanted to know what the hell brought this huge weird oaf to Cambodia and what kept him there. Dillon should have skipped his whodunit and just let Depardieu fill the screen. Although his character wasn't a native, Depardieu was the only actor with both feet firmly planted in Southeast Asia.

    MAY 13, 2003

    Reader comments on City of Ghosts:

  • City of Chosts - disappointing   from max, Dec 12, 2003
  • city of ghosts real karmic intrigue   from Grace Taylor, Dec 26, 2003
  • Not quite "City of Ghosts"   from Justin Windsor, Dec 29, 2003
  • city of ghosts - almost   from th, Jan 3, 2004
  • Wonderful art   from eddie delezen, Feb 26, 2005
  • 'city of ghosts' on the money for me   from mike keyes, May 5, 2005
  • i need help? LIKE SERIOUSLY READ!!!!!   from Chelsea, May 15, 2005
  • City of Ghosts   from MAC, Feb 1, 2006

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