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With: Matt Dillon, James Caan, Stellan Skarsgard, Gerard Depardieu, Natascha McElhone, Rose Byrne,Kem Sereyvuth
Written by: Matt Dillon, Barry Gifford
Directed by: Matt Dillon
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence
Running Time: 116
Date: 09/10/2002

City of Ghosts (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sin 'City'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Somehow it's refreshing to see Matt Dillon again. He has a definite star presence and still elicits the same comparisons to the Pacino/DeNiro New York school of acting that he earned back in his salad days: Over the Edge, My Bodyguard, Tex, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders and Drugstore Cowboy.

He's never quite gone away, though; keeping a low profile in art films and "B" films such as To Die For, Grace of My Heart, In & Out, and Wild Things. He was also in the enormous hit There's Something About Mary but his subtle supporting role went largely unnoticed among the flashy leads.

In any case, as if to wave a banner and announce that he's still here, he gives us his feature writing and directing debut, City of Ghosts.

City of Ghosts plays a lot like The Quiet American or The Dancer Upstairs -- it lacks the worldliness of the former but is more comfortable being a crime story than the latter.

Overall, it's another pulp thriller hoping for significance by utilizing a realistic foreign setting.

Fortunately, Dillon was smart enough to hire one of our best living crime authors (and former Examiner columnist) Barry Gifford to co-write the screenplay.

Together they dreamed up the story of an insurance worker, Jimmy (Dillon) who finds the feds waiting in his office after a natural disaster wipes out the homes of many policyholders. The feds have discovered that Jimmy's company doesn't really have any money and in fact never had any intention of paying out. They question Jimmy and let him go, deciding that he's small potatoes.

Jimmy gets on a plane to Thailand, and then Cambodia, to hook up with his partner, a father figure named Marvin (James Caan). Before he finds Marvin, he meets an international cast of characters including a French bartender/hotel concierge, Emile (Gerard Depardieu), art restorer Sophie (Natascha McElhone), a helpful cyclo driver, Sok (Kem Sereyvuth), and Marvin's nervous right-hand man Casper (Stellan Skarsgard).

Jimmy more or less follows whatever clues are laid before him, trying to figure out which ones are gold and which ones lead to dead ends -- and who is lying to him. It's all pretty standard stuff, but unlike The Dancer Upstairs, the story embraces its pulpiness and does not rely on coincidences to get the job done. It's an active story; it's always moving somewhere, even if that somewhere doesn't always make sense.

As a director, Dillon does his best to absorb the foreign culture, perhaps relying a bit too much on hand-held cameras to capture the off-kilter feeling of not working on your own turf.

But it's as an actor that he succeeds; he may not be Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart, but he's far more commanding than most of the army of pretty boys who pass as movie stars these days. He gives the illusion of substance, which is just what City of Ghosts needs.

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