Film director John Ford famously said, "When forced to pick between truth and legend, print the legend." This certainly applies to Scott’s biopic about the life of Domino Harvey, daughter of actor Laurence Harvey and supermodel Paulene Stone. Her father died when she was four-years-old and was unable to fill the void by his passing. By her teens, she had been kicked out of four elite boarding schools. At 20, she moved to Los Angeles and lived with her mother in the Hollywood Hills. She went into rehab for a drug addiction that started in her teens. Soon after, she reinvented herself and tried her hand at being a ranch hand in San Diego and a volunteer firefighter. From there, she ran a London dance club and even gave up a promising career as a model to become a bounty hunter, partnering with Ed Martinez. She helped him capture 50 fugitives and, in the process, also renewed her drug habit.
You couldn’t have created a better story and Scott and screenwriter Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) run with it, assembling a balls-out attack on the notion of celebrity that is part satire and part action film. Think of it as Scott’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Like Oliver Stone’s film, Scott throws all kinds of disparate elements into a stylish blender and what comes out is an intriguing mess of a film. Domino was blasted by critics and flopped at the box office but one has to admire the casting radically against type of Keira Knightley as Domino. She delivers one of the strongest performances of her career and is supported by Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez, a veteran actor and up-and-coming one. In turn, they are surrounded by an eclectic cast to say the least – Lucy Liu, Tom Waits, and Christopher Walken, along with Beverly Hills 90210 alumni Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green playing themselves (sort of).
The film begins with Domino (Keira Knightley) in police custody and being questioned by a criminal psychologist (Lucy Liu in an annoying cameo) and then proceeds to tell her story, about how she gave up her pampered, Beverly Hills 90210 life for that of an ass-kicking bounty hunter, through a series of flashbacks. Her father died when Domino was very young and she vowed to never let anyone get close to her again. She dabbled in modeling as Britain’s answer to Gia Carangi before her mother moved to L.A. and tried to mould her into a Beverly Hills socialite a la Paris Hilton, but Domino rebelled. These early scenes do a good job of selling Keira Knightley’s badass credentials and show how Domino got into bounty hunting. She went to a seminar and met Ed Mosbey (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez), two miscreants who take off with the participants’ money. Impressed by her chutzpah, Ed agrees to take her on and show her the ropes despite Choco’s reservations. Knightley, Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez play well off each other as she acts as the petulant younger sister to their older brothers – Ramirez, the macho man of few words and Rourke, the grizzled veteran with a swagger in his step.
Mo’Nique’s DMV worker go on Jerry Springer with her system of identifying mixed races entitled, the Mixed Race Categorical Flow Chart. For example, she identifies herself as Blactino (black and Latino) and then labels an audience member Chinegro (Chinese and black). This scene takes the circus-like atmosphere of Springer’s show and cranks it up another notch so that it rivals the sitcom parody in Natural Born Killers for zeroing in on one of the most ridiculous aspects of popular culture. And speaking of sending up pop culture, you have to give Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green credit for being willing to laugh at themselves in this film as they play exaggerated versions of their public personas. Scott puts their “characters” through the wringer as he pokes fun at spoiled, washed-up T.V. stars. Scott felt that the film’s story was made up of two halves: Domino’s life up to and including her decision to become a bounty hunter and her stint on a reality T.V. show. He wanted to have comedic elements in the film and the second half with Ziering and Green gave him plenty of opportunities.
All of the people around Domino want something – a book deal, money, T.V. ratings, or to boost their Hollywood reputation – but she’s not interested in any of that. The film suggests that becoming a bounty hunter was a way of rejecting her family’s privileged lifestyle. She wanted to throw that all away and do something that involved honest, hard work but even that gets corrupted when she, Ed and Choco inadvertently get roped into going after four thieves who may or may not have robbed an armored truck containing money belonging Drake Bishop (Dabney Coleman), the billionaire owner of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and who has links to mafia boss Anthony Cigliutti (Stanley Kamel). In a nice nod to the bank robbers masquerading as ex-Presidents of the United States in Point Break (1991), the armored truck robbers disguise themselves as several of the First Ladies. Eventually, our anti-heroes find themselves in a Mexican standoff reminiscent of the ones in past Scott films, True Romance (1993) and Enemy of the State (1998).
If Domino is the cinematic equivalent of an acid trip then the desert sequence is its peak. After inadvertently drinking Mescaline-dosed coffee, Domino and her crew (including her driver) crash their RV in the desert. Bruised and bloodied, Domino, Ed and Choco crawl out of the wreckage zonked out of their minds and are soon visited by none other than Tom Waits as the strains of his song, “Jesus Gonna Be Here” plays on the film’s soundtrack. He calls Domino an “angel of fire” and tells her that she and her companions must sacrifice their lives so that a young child may live. Waits’ character is clearly intended to be a holy man of some sort, a shaman putting the protagonists on a righteous path and proceeds to literally drive them to their destiny. Scott saw Waits’ character as a kind of Greek chorus that apparently has some kind of psychic connection with Domino and left it ambiguous if he was real or a figment of her imagination.
Knightley’s Domino is a fascinating package: a tough, gun-toting bounty hunter who also uses her stunning looks to get what she wants, like giving a gangbanger a lap dance to get the location of a guy she’s after. While that scene shows off her body, Scott turns it around in the next one, showing Domino watching Choco strip down to his underwear in a laundromat. He lingers just as long on Ramirez’s fine, chiseled physique so there’s eye candy for everyone. Knightley’s performance in Domino almost makes you forget how she was wasted in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The actress’ natural beauty and British heritage make her an excellent, if not unconventional, choice to play a model turned bounty hunter. The big question was if should could convey the toughness required for the role and not look ridiculous holding a gun. Thanks to Scott’s stylized camerawork, Knightley certainly looks the part and her performance does the rest. This film, along with her role in The Jacket (2005), are among her strongest performances to date. Both are vastly underappreciated and amply demonstrate that she’s more than a pretty face – she as some actual acting chops if given the chance to use them.
The slapdash, fast and loose style of Scott’s actually works in Domino – the director messes around with the speed of the film, the color intensity and amps up the music during montage sequences in order to draw our attention to them because he is imparting crucial information. He tarts up the color of the film to garish levels that include sun-baked yellows, Palmolive liquid green and midnight blues. In doing so, Scott calls attention to the artificiality of his film. There is very little resemblance of reality in Domino and instead it resembles a fevered dream that resides in Domino’s head. Domino is densely edited with layers of images that hit us at an accelerated rate. Along with Natural Born Killers, Domino must hold the record for most insert shots in a film. In NBK, Mickey and Mallory Knox became anti-folk heroes as does Domino, Ed and Choco to the sleaze addicts in the world who watch reality shows just like the people who idolize serial killers in Oliver Stone’s film. Furthermore, there is a scene in Domino where her goldfish dies and like Mickey killing the Native American Indian, this is a pivotal turning point when things begin to go south for her.
Director Tony Scott first heard of Domino Harvey in the mid-1990’s when his business manager sent him an article about her. What really got Scott’s attention was her being actor Laurence Harvey’s daughter and that she came from a very privileged life only to turn her back on it. He immediately contacted Domino and invited her to his office. A week later, they were in discussions to make her story into a film. From the get-go, he was not interested in making a standard biopic about her life. Over the years, Scott befriended Domino and she became a surrogate daughter to him. He tried to warn her to be careful but she told him that she loved the adrenaline rush that came with the job. He also met her bounty hunting team and witnessed their dynamic together. Scott began taping interviews with her and they provided the basis of a screenplay. In 1995, she sold her life story to him for $260,000.
Scott had several screenwriters (including, reportedly, Roger Avary) attempt to adapt her life into a film but found that they were all much too straightforward for his liking. Scott saw Donnie Darko (2001), written and directed by Richard Kelly, and then read his script for Southland Tales (2007) and was taken with his “unusual and very imaginative approach in terms of his comedic elements and his darker, almost sci-fi side,” while also creating characters that were “real, breathing people.” Kelly came up with the genesis for his fictionalized take on Domino’s life while sitting at a Santa Monica Department of Motor Vehicles trying to correct an error with his driver’s license. He saw the place as a source of vast information and decided to use it as the center of each story within the film. Much like he did with Southland Tales, Kelly crafted a complex narrative that interweaved several stories with flashbacks and flashforwards. Scott described it as “a huge jigsaw puzzle. The audience has to pay attention in order to stay with all the beats of the story.”
When Scott was ready to make the film, he contacted long-time friend and producer Samuel Hadida. They had worked together previously on True Romance with Samuel’s brother Victor, but it was not a commercial hit. This did not deter the Hadida brothers from taking a gamble on Scott’s new unconventional project. They gave the director the creative freedom to make the film the way he wanted. In 2002, Samuel met Kelly while the filmmaker was distributing Donnie Darko and he told the producer that he was writing the script for Domino. A few years later, Scott contacted Hadida and told him that he was trying to get the film made and had a small window of opportunity because actress Keira Knightley was only available from October to December.
The next day, Scott sent Hadida the script and a video of several clips from past films, commercials and television shows to give an idea of the look and tone he envisioned for Domino. He also sent a copy of Man on Fire and the next day Hadida agreed to finance the new film. The producer liked Kelly’s script with its dark humor and that “it was emotional and took you for a ride, but the character was still believable and three-dimensional.” The Hadidas sent the script to New Line Cinema, a company with a reputation for making challenging films, and they were interested in working with Scott and Knightley, the latter who was coming off the very popular Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), which is where Scott first noticed her. He cast the then-20-year-old Knightley based on instinct. He felt that transforming the actress into Domino would be like the real Domino transforming herself into a bounty hunter.
In April 2004, she met Scott in Los Angeles and told him how much she loved the script with its “mad story. It’s got action, sexuality, violence, bad language … but it’s very funny.” She was excited at the chance “to do something a little crazy that I hadn’t done before.” The actress wasn’t interested in doing an imitation of Domino and Kelly’s highly fictionalized take helped in her approach to the role. Knightley actually met the real Domino a couple of times while filming Pride & Prejudice (2005). Knightley didn’t have enough prep time to study her and so Scott told the actress to make up her own character. So, Knightley based her performance on her best friend and taped interviews of the real Domino. During the last two weeks of filming Pride & Prejudice, Knightley was getting calls from Scott about costumes and other things to do with Domino and remembered, “I couldn’t get my head into it at all,” and this upset the actress because she never had this problem before. She decided to cut off most of her hair and physically rid herself of the previous film role.
Scott had known Mickey Rourke socially for years and felt that the actor shared a similar personality with the real Ed: “Mickey is the right age, he’s grown up on motorcycles and in a boxing ring.” Without hesitation, Rourke agreed to do the film. For the actor, the script didn’t come to life until he started working on it with Scott, Knightley and Ramirez. During principal photography, Rourke constantly refined his character and wanted to know more details of Ed’s backstory. In 2004, Edgar Ramirez introduced a screening of his film, Punto Y Raya (2004) to the Hollywood Foreign Press in L.A. Casting director Denise Chamian was there and suggested that Scott and Hadida meet with the actor. After doing so and conducting a screen test, the director cast him as Choco, the hot-blooded Latino bounty hunter.
Filming began on October 4, 2004 in and around the L.A. area. In early December, the production moved to Las Vegas for a final total of 62 days. The pace was fast, mirroring that of the film itself, and, of course, to accommodate Knightley’s small window of availability. For the look of Domino, Scott wanted a color palette that was “all over the place,” including some shots in black and white. He wanted a “gritty, heightened reality” via brighter colors, darker blacks and whiter whites. The color palette often varied depending on the emotion of the individual scene. Scott utilized both 35mm and HD video cameras in the style of what he had done on Man on Fire. Scott also relied on multiple sources of inspiration, including magazines, newspapers, books, and magazines – building a reference library for his crew to draw from. He used frenetic camera movement and different film stocks to mirror what he described as the “21st century mindset” of the script, according to the film’s cinematographer Dan Mindel. To achieve the kinetic feel Scott wanted, Mindel employed hand crank cameras to shoot multiple exposures, which gave a distinctive look that came from varying exposures due to the inaccuracy of the camera speed. Many scenes utilized four to six cameras at a time in order to cut down on the number of takes the actors would have to do and to avoid having to go back for more coverage or inserts.
While Scott’s film was being made, the real Domino faced federal drug trafficking charges and a possible ten-year prison term. She was convinced that she had been set up. She told her former bounty hunting partner Ed Martinez that she wanted to make a documentary about her life in response to the highly fictionalized Scott film. She had been on the film set often, appearing briefly on-screen at the end, and even acted as a technical consultant. It was widely reported in the British press that according to an anonymous friend and her mother she was not pleased with how she was portrayed as purely heterosexual when she wasn’t and the liberties Kelly’s script took with her life. However, friends and family claim that she was happy with it. Domino died of a drug overdose on June 27, 2005. According to Scott, Domino never got to see the finished film but did see parts of it and loved what she saw.
Domino was very nearly universally despised by critics. In her review for the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday felt that the film was “occasionally funny and visually arresting, amount to absolutely nothing.” USA Today gave the film one-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “You can't accuse this film of bogging down in cheap psychology, yet you come out dissatisfied and without a clue about what made this person tick.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Is a movie that works as hard to be badass as Domino does a contradiction in terms? As a packaged sensory onslaught of girl-gunslinger nihilism, Scott's film would seem to have everything, yet taken simply as entertainment, it is dreadful: less cool than ice-cold, its violence too dissociated to inspire a decadent tremor of excitement.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Of course, if you care about things like logic and coherence, you probably shouldn't be watching Domino in the first place. Its director, the flamboyant Tony Scott, says, ‘This movie is about heightened reality,’ which means it's a chance for him to blow things up, employ a lot of stunt people and fool around with a variety of film stocks and processing techniques.”
Ultimately, it’s not important how much of Domino is true and how much of it isn’t. That’s really not the point that Scott is trying to make. This film may be his most personal one yet because of his close friendship with its subject. Coming from that perspective, he wasn’t interested in showing the more sordid side of her life – namely the raging drug habit, the going in and out of rehab, and so on – but rather he wanted this film to pay tribute to his friend by emphasizing the attributes he admired in her. One has to marvel at the chutzpah and clout Scott used to take a big chunk of someone else’s money and make a heartfelt tribute that was hated by most film critics and also bombed at the box office. Now that the dust has settled and some time has passed, Domino really needs to be re-evaluated and rediscovered for the wildly entertaining and oddly moving film that it is.
Domino Production Notes. 2005.
Edemariam, Aida. “She Loved Bringing in Sleazebags.” The Guardian. June 20, 2005.
“Interview: Keira Knightley & Tony Scott.” IGN. October 12, 2005.
Lee, Chris. “The Fall of a Thrill Hunter.” The Times. July 22, 2005.