For his atmospheric debut as a feature director, the actor Matt Dillon has cast himself as a guy in need of saving. It's a nice fit.
Written by Dillon and pulp-fiction veteran Barry Gifford ("Wild at Heart"), "City of Ghosts" centers on a two-bit scam artist, Jimmy Cremmins (Dillon), who, after getting nailed by the FBI for fraud, runs off to Cambodia to find the three-bit scam artist who schooled him, Marvin (James Caan).
Once in Phnom Penh, Jimmy meets up with the usual suspects -- some human wreckage in a soiled tropical suit, a mysterious beauty with a Modigliani neck -- but, more encouragingly, tumbles into a story that doesn't succumb to its more suspect clichés.
Since hitting the scene in the late 1970s, Dillon has often been cast as a mook. He can play smarter than average but there's something about how his pretty-boy looks combine with his thick intonation (or maybe just his New York accent) that reaps rewards in films as varied as "To Die For" and "There's Something About Mary."
In his debut, Dillon the director wisely makes certain that Dillon the actor plays to his strengths. He gives Jimmy more heart than good sense and ensures that the performance never leaps ahead of the character. Time and again in "City of Ghosts," Jimmy makes the wrong move, whether he's waving his passport around at a bar or following Marvin further down a larcenous path of no return. But if Jimmy is out of his depth, not so Dillon. One of the smartest moves first-time directors can make, especially when working both sides of the camera, is to surround themselves with first-rate talent.
Along with cinematographer Jim Denault, Dillon comes equipped with some heavyweight support, notably in the formidable form of Gerard Depardieu, as a barroom owner, and Stellan Skarsgård, as Marvin's cagey aide-de-camp. A consummate secondary player, Skarsgård stealthily worms into his role while Depardieu, never one to underplay a scene when he can throttle it and toss it around the room a few times, employs his larger-than-life presence to engaging effect. It's unlikely there's another actor who could upstage a monster python with such easy charm.
Although the rest of the supporting actors slide into their roles appealingly, they're not all given the benefit of complexity. Natascha McElhone always brightens up the scenery, but here, as an art restorer who becomes Jimmy's requisite love interest, she's little more than an attractive accessory. The Cambodian characters are equally one-dimensional, ranging from the saintly (a cyclo driver played by Sereyvuth Kem) to the satanic (a charismatic Chalee Sankhavesa).
As screenwriters, Dillon and Gifford don't always sidestep the more predictable pitfalls that First World travelers encounter when visiting the Third World, but neither could they be accused of bad faith. The film's beauty and earnestness help smooth the bumps, as does the fact that this may just be the first film noir ever made about needing to change your karma.
'City of Ghosts'
MPAA rating: R, for language and some violence
Times guidelines: Adult language, some bloodshed, severed body parts
A United Artists, Mainline Productions and Banyan Tree presention, in association with Kintop Pictures, released by MGM. Director Matt Dillon. Producers Willi Baer, Michael Cerenzie, Deepak Nayar. Screenplay by Dillon & Barry Gifford. Cinematographer Jim Denault. Editor Howard E. Smith. Costume designer Moji Sangi. Music supervisor Dondi Bastion. Production designer David Brisbin. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
In selected theaters.