City of Ghosts (2003) Movie Review

I didn’t know much about “City of Ghosts” going into the film except that it was the feature-length debut of first-time writer/director Matt Dillon (“Deuces Wild”). Dillon also stars in the movie as Jimmy, a conman who goes to Cambodia in search of his partner, played by James Caan (“Way of the Gun”). Along the way, Jimmy falls for art restorer Natascha McElhone (“Solaris”) and runs afoul of local toughs, kidnappers, and an ex-General, all trying to get their hands on his money. Along the way, French veteran Gerard Depardieu (“Vidocq”) shows up about 200 pounds too big as the owner of a Rick’s-like bar where everyone hangs out and any information relevant to the movie’s plot can be located.

“City of Ghosts” opens in New York City, but quickly shifts to Phnom Phen, Cambodia for the remainder of its running length. The “city” of the title refers to the Cambodia capital and its current status as a sort of retirement home (albeit a dangerous one) for lost foreigners, including Depardieu’s French businessman, nameless Vietnam War vets, and conman Marvin (Caan). But if the film had started out as a reflection on broken people finding themselves in this city of ghosts, then all of that is forgotten about 20 minutes later.

For its next hour and 20 minutes, “City of Ghosts” concerns itself with Jimmy as he tries to wrestle his share of a con from Marvin, while attempting to stay one step ahead of the conniving Casper (Stellan Skarsgard). Casper has the personality of a snake, only with less honesty. Luckily for Jimmy he makes a new friend in Sok (Kem Sereyvuth), a Cambodian, er — well, I don’t know what you call them. Sok owns one of those bicycles that he’s transformed into a sort of cab, and he pedals people around the city in them. Anyway, Sok becomes the only trustworthy friend for Jimmy in the entire city, which is really convenient, if you know what I mean.

“City of Ghosts” isn’t a bad movie at all, but it’s just not that good either. If it has one big, glaring fault, it’s that Dillon fails to see the true potential of his story, and thus focuses on the wrong angle. The whole deal with Jimmy trying to get his share of the con money is not nearly as interesting as Dillon believes it is. I would rather see more focus on the people who frequent Depardieu’s restaurant/hotel instead; to get to know these people, their situation, and how they came to be on foreign soil broken and shells of their former selves.

Instead, the screenplay by Dillon and Barry Gifford (“Lost Highway”) spends an exorbitant amount of time following Jimmy as he tries to maneuver through the movie’s many plot twists. And for a man who is supposed to be a slick conman, Jimmy proves to be one dense fellow. On more than one occasion Jimmy allows himself to be duped by various individuals, despite the fact that anyone with eyes can see that they can’t be trusted. “City of Ghosts” also features a wholly unsophisticated screenplay that offers little complexity to its characters. People we think are crooked or out to get the hero turns out to be crooked or out to get the hero. There are no surprises at all, with the exception of one “twist” that is easy to spot.

“City of Ghosts” fails to get under the skin of its characters. Nothing about the film is any more complex than what appears onscreen. Even Jimmy’s romance with McElhone’s character is plain. They meet, like each other, and fall in love. There is no underlying subtext to anything “Ghosts” does, which is a shame because the Phnom Phen setting, with its Third World atmosphere, offers up a lot of opportunity for some studies on humanity. Instead, all we get is a by-the-numbers movie about a guy trying to get his money — and does.

I can’t offer up something extraordinary, or even above average, that “City of Ghosts” does with its expensive location and budget. The movie really doesn’t do anything all that well and its characters are too underdeveloped, which leads to the film’s various alliances and character interplay being all a matter of convenience for the plot. For instance, there’s absolutely no reason for Sok to be so dedicated to Jimmy. I don’t think giving a foreigner a ride on your bike/cab qualifies as male bonding. So why is Sok risking his life for this American? Answer: because it’s convenient for the plot, that’s why.

As a first feature, “City of Ghosts” is a fair debut for Matt Dillon. Unfortunately he’s working from his own weak screenplay, and while the cinematography of Cambodia by Jim Denault (“Real Women Have Curves”) is sometimes inspired, I can’t help but get the feeling that there’s so much more of the country, and even the city, that the camera is missing.

Matt Dillon (director) / Matt Dillon, Barry Gifford (screenplay)
CAST: Matt Dillon …. Jimmy
James Caan …. Marvin
Natascha McElhone …. Sophie
G’rard Depardieu …. Emile
Kem Sereyvuth …. Sok
Stellan Skarsgard …. Casper

Buy City of Ghosts on DVD