Dir: Matt Dillon. US. 2002. 116 mins

A redundant throwback to the foreign climes, B-move thriller cliches of the 1950s, City Of Ghosts marks a competent but entirely conventional directorial debut from actor Matt Dillon. Fifty years ago, this might have served as a Robert Mitchum second feature with a sultry Jane Russell propping up the local bar. Now, the undeniably picturesque Cambodian locations and stellar cast are its strongest selling points and those will not be enough to help it carve out a significant theatrical career. Ancillary markets should prove more rewarding for the film, which had its world premiere at a special gala in Toronto last month. MGM has it for the US, Fandango for Italy and VCL for Germany; the UK, Japan and France are still available.

Co-written by Dillon and Wild At Heart novelist Barry Gifford, this exotic saga of a man's quest for redemption is the kind of thing that RKO would have covered in half the time and at much less expense. Events begin promisingly enough as an FBI investigation into a wide-ranging insurance company fraud prompts hotshot salesman Jimmy Cremmins (Dillon) to flee New York and head to Bangkok for a hasty meeting with colleague Kaspar (Skarsgard). He subsequently arrives in Phnom Phen, seeking criminal mastermind Marvin (Caan) and his share of the $10m haul they have accumulated. The audience later learn that Marvin is not only Jimmy's mentor but probably his father.

Fluid and well-paced, the opening sequences are convincing and compelling enough but that initial promise soon wilts as Jimmy winds up in a dilapidated bar run by the irascible Emile (Depardieu) and inhabited by a mischievous monkey. He also suffers the traditional fate of B-movie anti-heroes-an encounter with a beautiful woman (McElhone) and a bash over the head by sinister thugs. It is pretty much downhill from there as City of Ghosts follows a tired old formula of murky business dealings, shady characters and endless mistrust. Predictably, Jimmy does get knocked unconscious once again and is advised that it might be in his best interest to leave town.

Convoluted without being complex, the listless story tries to cover too much territory, leaving little room to fully develop characters and relationships. McElhone's Sophie, for instance, is little more than a token love interest and you are never entirely persuaded that Jimmy is a man on the road to redemption. There is too much colour and too little conviction. Nor do stretches of corny dialogue help, especially when they include embarrassing lines like 'How am I supposed to trust anybody when I don't even trust myself' '

Dillon's real-life love affair with Cambodia and decision to locate the story there does pay dividends with cinematographer Jim Denault capturing the heat and dust of the locations and ensuring that there is always some strong visual interest even if the dramatic developments fail to engage. A heavyweight cast lend solid professionalism to their florid roles and Dillon shows a fair command of the medium, emphasising emotion through close-ups and staging a number of suspenseful sequences towards the climax. If he is to make progress as a director he may need to tackle something less ambitious first and leave the scriptwriting to somebody else.

Prod co: Mainline Prod, Kintop Pictures
Int'l sales:
Capitol Films
Willi Baer, Michael Cerenzie, Deepak Nayar
Dillon, Barry Gifford
Cinematography: Jim Denault
Prod des:
David Brisbin
Howard E Smith
Tyler Bates
Main cast:
Matt Dillon, James Caan, Natascha McElhone, Gerard Depardieu, Stellan Skarsgard, Serevyuth Kem