Man on Fire: Creasy abandons his Bible and becomes a synecdoche of post-9/11 United States.
Man on Fire: Creasy kills a corrupt policeman by placing an explosive in his anus.
Man on Fire: The death of Creasy and the cessation of his concentrated subjectivity.
The Fan: Robert De Niro as a signifier of white male obsolescence.
Man on Fire: Denzel Washington as the new face of the Ugly American.
Domino: Excess abounds as an RV explodes.
Domino: Domino under surveillance by the Bounty Squad crew.
Domino: Domino’s “Tears in the Rain” tattoo, an allusion to Blade Runner.
Domino: Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering as themselves.
The Hunger: Catherine Deneuve as a female predator/protagonist.
Domino: Domino allows Ed to get weak around a woman without losing his working-class masculinity.
Domino: Ed’s missing big toe, a playful signifier of his male lack.
Domino: The poor little rich girl in combat mode.
Domino: Choco superimposed with Jesus imagery, suggesting a Latin rebirth of contemporary masculinity.
Domino: Lateesha Rodriguez (Mo’Nique) appears on The Jerry Springer Show.
Domino: Jerry Springer himself winces in disgust as Lateesha’s message gets trumped by televisuality.
Children of Men: A black newborn as a new beginning for Western civilization.
Domino: Mika, the next Martin Luther King.
Domino: Taryn Miles (Lucy Liu) informs Domino that her precious goldfish tattoo…
Domino: Alf, the cat-eating alien and the film’s deep structure.
Domino: Alf turns the Bounty Squad RV into a signifier of Afghani pride.
Domino: Domino confronts the reality that “we all fall down.”
Domino: Domino reclines in front of a decaying Los Angeles.
Domino: The “real” Domino Harvey, who died several months before the film’s release.
Domino: A bleeding Mickey Rourke as a symptom of cultural despair.
Deja Vu: Denzel Washington tries to save Paula Patton from 9/11 and Katrina by contorting and reversing time.
Heads you win, tails you die
Buckland and Elsaesser’s classical-plus model of a more open textual system that brings the deep structure of race, gender, globalization, and “intercultural and transnational semiotics” to the surface can be seen savagely at work in Man on Fire and Domino. Man on Fire features an U.S. expatriate who has lost faith in himself and his cultural heritage. When Creasy isn’t pondering suicide or spooning with a whiskey bottle, he is thumbing the Bible, unable to open its contents. Creasy reluctantly accepts a job as a bodyguard to Pita (Dakota Fanning) — suggestive of an United States beset by downsizing, terrorism (the threat of kidnapping and murder), and random violence brought on by Mexican greed and corruption. When Creasy fails to prevent the kidnapping of Pita, he abandons his Bible and goes on a rampage, declaring himself a wrathful tool of divine justice and retribution. As Creasy methodically tortures and assassinates one Mexican official after another, he becomes a synecdoche of post-9/11 United States and our desire to punish the rest of the world for our misfortunes. Creasy — already identified as ex-CIA and a soldier-for-hire — turns Mexico City into Baghdad and degenerates into a one-man Gitmo or Abu Ghraib, slicing off fingers of one henchman and planting explosive charges in another corrupt policeman’s anus.
Scott’s vomit comet becomes a mobile and sliding signifier of its own, functioning as a direct manifestation of lack and traumatic repetition. Bordwell notes that one of the legacies of the postclassical is an increasing movement of the camera rather than the blocking of characters throughout space and time. Scott’s post-2000 concentrated style — his close framing, short average shot lengths, distorted sound dissolves, acrobatic subtitles, and other jittery techniques — makes Denzel Washington indeterminate in his ideological mission. Creasy manages to safeguard Pita’s return to the United States, but the only welcome state of equilibrium is Creasy's death and the cessation of his subjectivity. Only then can the film offer any illusion of stability or containment.
Scott rarely kills his protagonists. Quentin Tarantino instructed Scott to slaughter Christian Slater in True Romance, but Scott felt that Slater and Patricia Arquette deserved to survive the climactic bloodbath that envelops most of the ensemble cast. Robert De Niro is executed at the end of The Fan, but he is the film’s signifier of lack and white male obsolescence—Willie Loman Photoshopped into Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta. Washington’s death in Man on Fire suggests a desire to resist symbolic blockage and advance the action film into darker registers. Man on Fire has the temerity to cast an African-American as the “face” of the Ugly American, suggesting that post-9/11 USA positions the white and black male as a source of lack and panic. Washington’s willingness to rescue Pita suggests a growing affinity between black and white Americans and a concomitant distrust and dislike of Latin Americans that explodes in a graphic display of jingoistic rage.
With Domino Scott validates both Bordwell and Buckland & Elsaesser with a film that embraces the postclassical as an irreconcilable clash with everything that once defined Classical Hollywood Cinema. Midway through Domino Mickey Rourke complains of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Scott’s unflinching volley of subjunctive flashforwards and flashbacks, hand-cranked shots, flashing, cross-processing, multiple exposures, selective focus, sonic overlays, and tiptoeing subtitles gives the spectator the same level of discomfort and anxiety as Rourke and his “spastic colon.”
Domino works on a constant level of overstimulation, with sudden shifts in narrative range, camera perspective, and sound design. The film’s exposition sets the baseline with its elliptical cuts, farrago of languages (English, Spanish, and Pashto at one point) and ambient sound (a strategic sound bite and close-up of Lawrence Harvey from The Manchurian Candidate muttering, “part drug, part light-induced”), and the jarring shifts from Domino’s opening interrogation with Taryn Miles (Lisa Liu) to Domino, Ed, and Choco’s in medias res confrontation with Edna Fender. Excess rules in Domino as characters fiend for Mountain Dew, overindulge in pornography (Howie, one of the counterfeit First Ladies, muses that in ten years time the United States will reach the saturation point of APATT — All Porno All the Time), unwittingly overdose on mescaline, and blow up an RV and a Las Vegas hotel with C-4 explosives.
The film’s narrative, like poor Locus, is dismembered by frequent asides, digressions, instant flashbacks, and a number of subjunctive sequences that present one scenario, reverse it, then replay it with a different outcome. Many of the narrative cause/effect links follow a “heads you live/heads you die” logic, reflected in Domino’s narrational admission late in the film that everything is determined by chance:
Domino presents the contemporary United States as an overmediated sensorium, a postmodern flow of random, meaningless consumer artifacts that form one long dangling modifier. There is no escape from pop culture—intertextuality abounds as characters quote song lyrics, drop celebrity names, and ponder random images on a nearby television screen.[open endnotes in new window] Everyone from Brenda Lee (“Sorry”) to Tom Jones (“Mama Told Me Not to Come”), Johann Sebastian Bach (“Saint Matthew’s Passion”), and 2 Live Crew (“Me So Horny”) sneak in and out of the soundtrack as the film references everything from BET to MapQuest, Pepsi, Moon Pies, the L.A. Lakers, Sam Kinison, and Blade Runner (Domino sports a “Tears in the Rain” tattoo, a fraternal nod to Ridley Scott).
Domino cannot escape the presence of a television, whether as an actual object or social phenomenon or as a syntagmatic device, a “channel-click” effect when the film shifts in time and space, particularly when Sophie falls in love with Beverly Hills 90210 and decides to relocate to Los Angeles. Domino the film is at odds with televisuality itself. Domino, coded as filmic by her ties to Laurence Harvey and The Manchurian Candidate, despises the 90210 world of contemporary Los Angeles — a wasteland that culls its lifestyle from television serials (90210), television game shows (The Weakest Link), television talk shows (The Jerry Springer Show) and, finally, as an internarrative device, Reality TV in the form of Domino’s own show Bounty Squad, a clear allusion to Cops. Mark Heiss hires ex-90210 cast members Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering (playing themselves) as hosts. Domino cannot resist breaking Green’s nose and abducting the two as “celebrity hostages” when Claremont’s embezzlement scheme goes awry. Television sets attract the ire of Choco, who enjoys tossing one through an SUV during the taping of Bounty Squad and smashing another when Ed is relaxing in front of a pay-per-view porno. Domino eventually orders the Bounty Squad crew to “turn the fucking camera off” and decides to “sabotage the footage” when Domino, Ed, and Choco take Green and Ziering hostage. Television in Domino is a corrosive, disruptive agent, more fearsome and ferocious than any of the trigger-happy gangbangers Ed, Choco, and Domino meet in the barrio.
We all get weak around women
Domino is the third Tony Scott film to feature a female lead protagonist. As with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in The Hunger and Patricia Arquette in True Romance, Keira Knightly is a force to be reckoned with, a two-fisted vamp who defies any norm of class or gender. Domino strolls into Ed and Choco’s bounty hunter seminar in suggestive clothing, daring them to dismiss her as a mere object of desire, then confounding them with a martial display as she hurls a stiletto through Ed’s car windshield. Petite and forceful, Domino enjoys using her looks and sexuality to perplex and disarm bail jumpers, offering a post-feminist model of gender as fluid and cross-discursive as Domino itself. Ed, the film’s most conventional model of masculinity, remains in awe of Domino’s independence and intelligence. He latches onto her immediately, lecturing Choco that Domino lifts them from obscurity and their ignoble status as ex-convicts and skip tracers:
That Mickey Rourke, speaking through Ed, can be impressed by Domino’s resourcefulness speaks volumes about impending changes in gender identity in contemporary United States. Although Ed cannot resist one of Rourke’s signature misogynisms: “We all get weak around women. Fucking broads are all nuts. They know how to kill us” —he happily relinquishes his male supremacy, represented by a missing big toe on his right foot. Knightly, like Rourke, remains fixed in her gender role even as she brandishes a pair of nunchakus. Rourke smiles puckishly when he references Pat Benatar and quips, “love is a battlefield.” In Domino every social discourse is a field of struggle, rife with excess and sacrifice.
Knightly and Rourke are not the only signifiers of social turbulence in Domino. Edgar Ramirez’s Choco is the film’s source of “Latin petulance,” a Venezuelan immigrant who vies for Domino’s affection and attention. Choco scolds Weiss’s assistant Kimmie (Mena Suvari) that “This is L.A. Everyone should speak Spanish.” He refuses to speak English at any whim, frequently when he feels threatened or marginalized. An attraction builds between Domino and Choco, culminating with their mescaline-induced, Zabriske Point-inflected lovemaking in the Nevada desert. Ed, briefly Domino’s lover, belittles Choco’s overtures toward Domino but shows no remorse or resentment as he lays dying next to Choco and Domino as they share a final embrace. Scott superimposes images of Jesus Christ with Choco’s countenance, a privileging of the Latino as a “rebirth” of conventional U.S. masculinity and identity. Domino, herself an Anglo immigrant, finds solace with an underprivileged South American “savior” who offers an alternate path to enlightenment and harmony. Rourke becomes an afterthought, the older white male not as father, mentor, or lover.
Lateesha Rodriguez, played with gusto by Mo’Nique, a self-professed “Blactino” woman, foregrounds issues of race, ethnicity, and class as she fights with her HMO to pay for an operation that will rescue her granddaughter Mika from a rare blood disease. As Domino repeats throughout the film,
Domino is full of characters “trying to make a living.” Even Domino, a product of wealth and fame, admits “it’s a question of when to cash out.” Lateesha finagles a spot on the Jerry Springer Show as the “the world’s youngest grandmother” to promote her book about mixed-race identity in America to subsidize her granddaughter’s medical needs.
The resulting scene is resolutely hers as she offers a syncretic model of race that serves as a sliding signifier for the entire film — as Lateesha tosses out “Chinegro” and “Hispasian,” Scott combines the mise-en-scene of the Jerry Springer Show with Man on Fire’s concentrated subjectivity to suggest a culture in a state of flux and hybridization. Lateesha intends to raise awareness about the “healthcare crisis in America” but gets sidetracked arguing with the Springer audience. As with everything in Domino, social justice gets drowned out by Springer/Domino-Vision as a wellspring of class divisions and ethnic antagonisms cascades into a cacophonous volley of insults and the stock shot of Springer himself wincing in disgust and embarrassment.
One of the key motifs in Domino is the appearance of four thieves in masks—the First Ladies, that being Jacqueline Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Hillary Clinton. These First Ladies turn out to be Lateesha, her two African-American homegirls Lashandra (Macy Gray) and Lashindra (Shondrella Avery), and gay Latino Raul (Joe Nunez). The “First Ladies” share a group solidarity that surpasses Domino, Ed, and Choco’s attempt to form a surrogate family. Domino refers to the First Ladies as “the gatekeepers of humanity.” When Lateesha asks her crew to assist her in an armored-car robbery Raul answers,
Claremont, Lateesha’s crew, and Domino’s makeshift family collaborate to ensure that Lateesha receives the $300,000 she needs to save Mika — who roadside prophet/preacher/shaman Tom Waits proclaims will be a great leader on the scale of Martin Luther King. Mika, like the black newborn in Children of Men (2006), is the United States' last hope, the alternative to the melee of Jerry Springer, Bounty Squad, and the many antagonisms, miscommunications, automobile crashes, and explosions that bring the film to its apocalyptic close. Whiteness is not the solution in Domino. In fact, it is a narrative dead-end. For the world to make sense, Taryn Miles (Lucy Liu) must inform Domino that her precious icon, the goldfish, is in actuality a koi, a Japanese symbol that means “white, and nothing else.” It does not escape Domino that she willingly flushes that same goldfish down the toilet, a sign of her own waning importance in the wake of Mika’s successful operation and Lateesha’s mixed-race flowchart. Truly the “First Ladies” of the future will be black or brown.
We all fall down
Race is not the only compelling force in Domino. Alf becomes a crucial element in the film, a reminder of third-world deprivation, a discourse that is ostensibly alien to Domino, but one that can no longer be ignored or contained by the narrative. Underneath all of the domestic sliding signifiers is Alf, the film’s deep structure, the looming specter of the “War on Terror,” 9/11, and the occupation of Iraq. Alf is first introduced as the film’s comic Other, his name borrowed from the inane 1980s sitcom. Gradually, sedulously, Alf, like Lateesha and the First Ladies, takes ownership of the narrative. Alf adorns the Bounty Squad RV with Islamic iconography and the skulls of vanquished Russian soldiers. Once Alf tastes mescaline he gives Lateesha the $300,000 she needs for Mika’s operation and mails the rest of Drake and Cigliutti’s fortune to Afghanistan. Alf eclipses Domino’s hated 90210-world when he threatens Corporate America (represented by Drake and Cigluitti) and the FBI with destruction.
Like other recent action films such as War of the Worlds (2005), Smokin’ Aces (2006), Transformers (2007), and Cloverfield (2008), Alf represents a growing realization that the legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq can no longer be isolated “over there.” Alf, like Choco with his shotgun, traumatizes the narrative and hurls Domino, Ed, and Choco into a conflict they do not acknowledge or understand. Like the average American anesthetized by CNN or the latest iPod, Domino, Ed, and Choco are caught in the final crossfire and conflagration without warning, unable to comprehend Alf’s intentions. Domino does not just end with Mika’s surgery, but a shot of Afghani children tossing millions of dollars into the air — for the United States to survive, both minorities in the first world and citizens in the third world must get the healthcare and financial assistance they need to survive. Or else.
In Domino there is no longer a stable Other — only a nagging realization that post-9/11 USA is so saturated by commercial media, displaced violence, and amoral poverty that the only safe haven is Domino’s dreaded gated community in Beverly Hills. The climax of Domino comes to an eschatological close as Alf dynamites the Stratosphere hotel in Las Vegas. As Domino synopsizes, “we all fall down.” That Domino ends with an explosion triggered by an Afghani national suggests that the specter of violence haunting the national psyche can no longer be contained within Denzel Washington and Mexico City in Man on Fire. The violence becomes so totalizing that the United States can no longer seal its borders and contain its ideological contradictions. Alf informs Domino that he will make everything OK, but he inadvertently kills all the film’s protagonists except Domino herself, who, in a cruel and unanticipated coda, died of a drug overdose before the film’s release. Even the real Domino could not escape Domino.
Tony Scott’s need to push the boundaries of the postclassical into the classical-plus and the hyperclassical with Man on Fire and Domino suggests a growing impatience with intensified continuity and the postmodern condition. In Top Gun and even True Romance the audience can easily float with the surface structure and identify with the fantasy of transcending both physical space and cultural time. But in Man on Fire and Domino the audience cannot ignore the deaths of Denzel Washington, Edgar Ramirez, and Mickey Rourke, the irrevocable loss of continuity, and the status of the image not as synergistic decoration or digital simulacrum, but as a symptom and agent of cultural flux and despair. Even in Deja Vu, which retreats somewhat from the volatile aesthetic of Man on Fire and Domino, Scott makes postclassical narrative hyperclassical by allowing Denzel Washington to inhabit the past and present simultaneously. Deja Vu, with its post-Katrina New Orleans, opening terrorist attack, and urgent desire to traverse time and prevent the death of Paula Patton, suggests a shell-shocked United States unable to understand the past or ponder the future — Denzel, in a Butterfly Effect-like matrix of temporal frequency and repetition, dies in one narrative thread even as he emerges unscathed in another. Scott pushes the boundaries of narrative time and space so far he doesn’t need the vomit comet or Domino-Vision to achieve the same measure of indeterminacy. Man on Fire, Domino, and Deja Vu suggest that the only sin Tony Scott has committed is not to anticipate the hyperclassical and the classical-plus sooner.