(Pa, FR, LLL, VVV, S, AA, DD, MMM) Pagan worldview with relativistic morality (what's right for one man may not be right for another) as well as prayer to false gods in a temple and works based pagan content where a man gives a great deal of money to his local temple; about 41 vulgar obscenities and one profanity; man getting hit in the head from behind by a gang, several men are shot, a man is made to walk into an active mine field and a foot is severed and used as a ransom note; a scene of implied sexual promiscuity takes place off screen and references to prostitution; seven instances of heavy alcohol use; smoking throughout the movie and a scene of drug use; and, copious scenes of lying, blackmail, gambling, murdering, and prostitution. GENRE: Action Adventure Pa FR LLL VVV S AA DD MMM
CITY OF GHOSTS is the writing and directing debut of actor Matt Dillon, who stars as Jimmy, the front man for a bogus insurance company created by Marvin (James Cann). Set mostly in Phnom Penh, exceptional cinematography captures the loathsome street's eye view of lawlessness, graphic violence, child prostitution, and foul language which provides the context to the shallow portrayal of Jimmy's redemption as he fights his way out of a life of crime and its entanglements.
CITY OF GHOSTS, while compelling and at times brilliant, gets caught up by poorly scripted and unemotional father-son angst between the two lead characters, played by Matt Dillon and James Caan. It quickly leaves the moviegoer without any emotional involvement in many important scenes in the movie. Matt Dillon debuts in his first movie as both writer and director with a credible script, but, despite Dillon’s few exceptional and well-portrayed characters, there seems to be many more confusing and unnecessary characters detracting from the movie’s goals.
The movie compels the viewer to follow the transformation of the main character, Jimmy Cremmins (Matt Dillon), from his role as a bogus insurance agent, while fronting for his longtime mentor, Marvin’s (James Caan). The exposure of the scam causes Jimmy to flee the U.S. to search the seamy back alleys of Southeast Asia for his mentor in crime. They find each other in Phnom Penh, where Jimmy is again embroiled in Marvin’s scheming. This leads to a virtual train wreck of collateral events involving the profiteering Cambodia military and the equally ruthless Russian Mafia. The one oasis in the resulting storm of vice and danger is Jimmy’s growing relationship with Sophie (Natascha McElhone), who ultimately completes his transformation as Jimmy is sickened by his life of crime and eventually turns to her to begin afresh.
The transformation of Jimmy Cremmins is unsatisfying and falls far short of a true picture of repentance, redemption and restoration. Though Jimmy initially feels bad about people losing their homes in a South Florida hurricane through their reliance on his phony insurance scam, there is never any coming to grips for Jimmy with the fact that he has actually done wrong. Nor is there any sense of his willingness to face accountability for his actions or to make restitution to those he has wronged. Instead, they are quickly forgotten, and the bag of cash he is carrying through much of the movie is either kept or pointlessly given away. This shallow picture of repentance and redemption serves to illustrate that there is a big difference between regretting sin, and regretting becoming entangled in its consequences, versus true repentance.
While Sophie is Jimmy’s lifeline in the latter half of the movie, the viewer is left in the end wondering about the depth of Jimmy’s personal redemption. Instead of exploiting Florida home owners for his profit as in the beginning, he shifts to exploiting Sophie through sex within the first 24 hours of their meeting by leveraging his angst generated from trying to untangle himself from his mentor, Marvin’s, schemes and the sinister disappearance. Sophie represents the fulfillment of Jimmy’s restless search for peace and safety but it doesn’t seem that Sophie is any better off with Jimmy than without him.
The backdrop to much of the movie is the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh and the surrounding countryside. The filmmakers take great pains to starkly depict the underside of the city as it truly is. Shot in the French Colonial section, many of the movie’s scenes are housed in mildewed, post-war relics of a bygone day of order and prosperity set in a painfully accurate context of child prostitution, violence, and vintage Khmer Rouge graffiti. The cinematic attention to detail convincingly conveys the feel of street life and its expected dangers and provides the glue that holds this movie to its course and that gives each scene credibility. However accurate, the viewer is left with a loathsome assessment of the raw reality of steaming, dirty, lawless places like Phnom Penh that the average viewer really doesn’t need to see. Most people really do not need graphic portrayals of the exploitation of children in slavery and prostitution, nor is one’s life left incomplete without seeing a severed foot adding emphasis to its attached ransom note. Hide your head in the sand, some might say, but the gritty shock value of the movie is lost in the moral moviegoer’s demand for safe entertainment.
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