- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

“City of Ghosts” is the first Western movie to be filmed in Cambodia since 1964’s “Lord Jim,” and it was about time.

The tiny Southeast Asian country, with its backdrop of ancient Buddhist temples and post-colonial, post-revolutionary intrigue, was ripe for a stirring thriller and an on-location visual feast.

“City of Ghosts,” while far from perfect, is both those things. It is a brave directorial debut for a largely unaccomplished actor, Matt Dillon, who also co-wrote the script (with novelist Barry Gifford) and stars in the movie.

The multitasking Mr. Dillon gamely follows in the footsteps of director Francis Ford Coppola, who took Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” journey into the Belgian Congo and set it in late-Vietnam-era Cambodia for “Apocalypse Now.”

Like Mr. Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece, “Ghosts” draws cinematic juice from the mysterious, occult East and its agitated interaction with the West, but “Ghosts” lacks the Gotterdammerung-like scope of “Apocalypse.” The war is over. The murderous dictator Pol Pot is dead. The communist Khmer Rouge soldiers are a scattered, mostly powerless bunch. All the postwar chaos so brilliantly set down in Roland Jaffe’s “The Killing Fields” has subsided.

The Cambodia of “Ghosts” is a simmering, disintegrated backwater jungle populated by destitute locals, petty cutthroats, shady expatriates, corrupt military types and international gangsters.

Amid all the Third World exotica of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, Mr. Dillon’s Jimmy Cremmins, a New Yorker, searches for Marvin (James Caan), his partner in an insurance scam that robbed millions from the victims of a catastrophic hurricane.

As the morally ambivalent Cremmins — guilty about fleecing so many people, fearful of facing federal investigators and loyal to Marvin, his mentor and partner in fraud — Mr. Dillon is asking a lot of his audience.

Though he has had fairly challenging roles in such Gus Van Sant movies as “Drugstore Cowboy” and “To Die For,” Mr. Dillon is perhaps best known for the sleazily dopey parts he played in “There’s Something About Mary” and “Wild Things.”

It’s hard to shake those images of Mr. Dillon, even as he surrounds himself with talented character actors such as Stellan Skarsgard (“Good Will Hunting”), Gerard Depardieu and the long lost Mr. Caan.

There’s something about the way he delivers dialogue — labored and ploddingly — that makes Mr. Dillon seem not serious. He’s hard to listen to and harder to believe, which is a shame. “City of Ghosts” is an engrossing, if ill-explained, story, and the Cremmins character might have come across a lot better had the role been played by an actor with more gravitas.

Still, the secondary players in “Ghosts” more than pull their weight. Mr. Depardieu is at his outsize best as a gnarly, gun-toting Corsican colonial who owns a shabby bar and hotel in downtown Phnom Penh. Mr. Skarsgard is wonderfully slimy as one of Marvin’s business associates, who may be in cahoots with the Russian mob.

And Mr. Caan — where has this guy been for so long? Aside from an unintentionally laughable scene in which he lip-syncs to a horrible East Asian pop tune, Mr. Caan nails that balance of sinister likability that he immortalized in the character of Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather.”

Cremmins eventually finds Marvin, who, entangled with a Cambodian ex-general in a grand scheme to open a Vegas-style casino resort, winds up getting kidnapped by a band of thugs.

Unsure of whom to trust, Cremmins befriends a local Cambodian taxi driver named Sok — a bond that seems modeled after the one between Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran in “The Killing Fields” — and romances an English art restorer (Natascha McElhone).

Neither relationship fits all that well into the film’s narrative, bogging down an already complicated international crime drama with flaky human-interest offshoots.

Mr. Dillon ultimately tries too hard to say too much with “Ghosts.” The first-time director shows he has a knack for pictures, which should serve, but never subsume, the story.

In “City of Ghosts,” Mr. Dillon got things backward.

**

TITLE: “City of Ghosts”

RATING: R (Profanity, occasional graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Matt Dillon. Written by Mr. Dillon and Barry Gifford. Produced by Willi Baer, Michael Cerenzie and Deepak Nayar. Photography directed by Jim Denault. Music by Tyler Bates

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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