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When hurricanes on the east coast of the United States wreak domestic havoc, dispossessed residents queue-up at the Capable Trust Insurance Co. seeking to recover their losses only to find that the company assets have vanished. The FBI question Jimmy Cremmins (Matt Dillon), head of the U.S. office, about his shady boss Marvin (James Caan), who is rumoured to be somewhere in Cambodia. They recommend that Jimmy surrender his passport but instead, Jimmy is on the next flight to Phnom Penh in search of the mysterious Marvin, who is still to reward him for his dubious services. In the crumbling capital Jimmy finds that the trail to Marvin’s hideaway is littered with kooks, creeps, crims and the odd corpse. His conscience tells him to retreat from any scheme Marvin is involved in, but he soon learns that possessing even a little knowledge of Marvin’s activities can be deadly.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:

Actor Matt Dillon makes a competent debut as writer and director with this lurid yarn of living dangerously in steamy Cambodia…and posts notice of perhaps better things to come. Dillon’s influence is Graham Greene and The Third Man and although his story is original, the film has the look of one based on a complex and convoluted novel, brought to the screen with too many missing pages and important plot details left coiled on the cutting room floor. Still looking remarkably fresh-faced for his 38 years (once even being referred to as “the kid” by his on-screen mentor, Caan), Dillon is effectively perplexed and heroic as the “quiet American” insurance scammer who comes to Cambodia to receive what is owed to him only to be plunged into a whirlpool of deals and deceit that is very much more than he bargained for.

The film blasts off to a thunderous start, with howling winds and hurricanes setting the scene for Jimmy’s hasty flight to the South East Asian hell hole where the climate is no more hospitable. Ubiquitous characters include The Beautiful Girl (Natascha McElhone, as an English art restorer), the faithful pedicab-driver (Sereyvuth Kem, who serves as custodian and guide), the friendly barman (Depardieu, a fat but benevolent troll lumbering about in his decrepit hotel, with unexplained babe in arms) and the duplicitous insider, Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgard) who keeps you guessing as to whose side he’s really on.

Other familiar ingredients include a cell of cackling Russian Mafia head-kickers: meaning evil, doing evil but seeming like an afterthought created merely to cause Marvin more grief and make an unnecessary muddle of the plot. There’s also a mischievous hotel monkey, probably in cahoots with management, thieving anything of value from guests and Kaspar’s vintage Mercedes, which comes with an all but mandatory jagged crack in the windscreen. The fringe characters, like the grinning doorman, local bar-flies, dead-beats, thugs, crooks and hangers-on are in many ways more interesting and keep things quirky enough not to let the dreary romantic sub-plot test the patience too much. The film scores with a subtle humour…Marvin’s dream is to turn Phnom Penh into “the next Acapulco,” which is laughable in itself, when you consider it’s probably just another of his elaborate scams. The photography captures the city in all its crumbling charm; you can practically smell the pungent mix of exotic fruit, rotting vegetation and human sweat and the music has a local flavour that adds atmosphere…even if the clanging percussion doesn’t always bring music to the ears.

At last, when all deals are done and all the cards are laid out on the table, The City Of Ghosts seems all too transparent. Dillon is “Jimmy on the spot” but the viewer will see through to the likely payoff long before Jimmy does. All evidence indicates that Dillon and Co. didn’t quite know how to end it. The paltry Special Features pack includes nonsensical bits of an interview with an English journo in which a flaky Dillon fails to articulate answers to simple questions. Dillon himself would hardly have approved of these embarrassing scraps going out with the DVD, which further leave the impression that, on location, he might not always have been completely in control of his senses.

Published December 25, 2003

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(US, 2002)

CAST: Matt Dillon, James Caan, Gerard Depardieu

DIRECTOR: Matt Dillon

SCRIPT: Matt Dillon, Barry Gifford

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16:9 Widescreen Anamorphic

SPECIAL FEATURES: Matt Dillon interviews, talent profiles, Original trailer, Bonus Trailers, Behind the scenes snaps


DVD RELEASE: January 7, 2004

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