I suppose City of Ghosts counts as a “vanity project,” at least if that term can be understood neutrally rather than always being derogatory. It was written and directed by Matt Dillon, who also plays the lead. So this is very much the “Matt Dillon Show.”
The very early part of the movie takes place in the United States. Dillon runs an insurance company for some shadowy figure named Marvin whom he only deals with by phone and who apparently is offshore somewhere (where the money also is). The company turns out to be a scam. When a massive hurricane hits in an area where they have sold a lot of policies and the desperate people seek to collect what they’re owed, it turns out the offshore accounts have all been cleaned out and there’s nothing left.
The FBI investigates and appears satisfied that the seemingly cooperative Dillon was no more aware of the scam than the policyholders were. They theorize that “Marvin” is probably fictitious—just a pseudonym used by some group of scammers who tricked Dillon and the others involved in the day-to-day operation of the business.
The vast majority of the movie then takes place in Cambodia, as Dillon slips out of the country to track down Marvin himself. He knows that Marvin certainly is a real person, and he knows that the company was a scam from the beginning because he was in on it, though he’s depicted as now having considerable regret about that.
It’s not entirely clear why he follows Marvin to Cambodia when he finds out that that’s where he is. Is it because he thinks otherwise he won’t get his share of what they stole? He claims to be indifferent if he’s paid at all, due to his moral awakening. Is it because he wants in on the next scam? There’s no evidence for this, because, again, he indicates he’s now against such nefarious activity. Is it because he wants to get Marvin to return the money to the victims? Fat chance of that happening, and he doesn’t push it when he succeeds in communicating with him. Is it because he really is cooperating with the FBI and wants to turn Marvin over to them? There’s no indication of that.
As best I can make out, based on what we learn later about the close personal relationship between Dillon and Marvin, Dillon maybe just has some sense that he belongs with Marvin, that their fates will be forever intertwined, hopefully in a way that is consistent with his newfound conscience, but intertwined either way.
Or maybe there is something a lot more specific than that and I missed it. It wouldn’t be hard at all to miss key points in City of Ghosts. It’s one of those thrillers with shifting alliances amongst a large number of mysterious people, where no one can trust anyone and violence—explicable or not—can break out at any time. If it’s any consolation, most of the characters themselves are probably as much in the dark about what’s really going on as the viewer is.
On the plus side, I definitely appreciate the cast in this movie. Dillon is fine in his role, and Marvin is played by James Caan, whom I tend to like. The always compelling Gérard Depardieu is very good in a supporting role as a Phnom Penh bar owner and con man. But the local Cambodians—like the bicycle taxi driver and the corrupt general—are fine too.
Another positive is the atmospherics. I was consistently drawn in by the dark, forbidding, tense environment of a Third World country where whatever government and law enforcement exist is seemingly too inefficient or corrupt to be relied upon. The mood is one of constant risk, with the specifics being unpredictable. As an outsider, albeit one with a fair amount of experience with shady people and situations, Dillon seems always vulnerable to violence and betrayal, and since it’s his story you kind of walk in his shoes and feel that vulnerability.
But there are also factors that keep me from rating this movie too highly. One small negative is the side plot where Dillon meets and falls for a woman, another Westerner. She is part of some NCO seeking to protect important historical sites or something, but there’s really no reason for her to even exist in the film except to allow Dillon to fulfill the conventional macho (they meet when he beats up some guy harassing her, which has the predictable effect on her) romantic leading man role.
It’s implausible that in the midst of seeking to solve mysteries, maneuver through a minefield of treacherous people (not to mention at least one literal minefield), and stay alive in this situation of constant mortal danger, Dillon would devote a significant amount of time and attention to flirting with some woman and setting up dates with her.
In the end, that’s the main problem with this movie: Too many things are simply implausible.
Besides the romantic angle, there’s also the fact that for a good portion of the movie he’s carrying around—or leaving in his very insecure hotel room, or leaving with this girl he just met—massive amounts of money in cash. Given what we’re shown about this environment, one would guess there’s over a 90% chance he’d get mugged if not killed with the money, or would return to his hotel room to find it ransacked and the money gone. But he just blithely walks around like Mr. Cool with thousands if not a million or more dollars totally vulnerable like that.
It makes sense that as a white collar con man, Dillon would be skilled at reading people and living by his wits. But what doesn’t make sense is that he’d turn into a combination of James Bond and Rambo when it comes to fighting with fists or guns. How likely is it that some Bernie Madoff-type guy is going to consistently be able to knock out Cambodian street toughs with one punch, or outdraw former Khmer Rouge henchman in a gun fight? It would be implausible enough if this were some career soldier of fortune with Green Beret training.
And the people who mean to do him harm use strangely convoluted means to do so—like a Batman episode, or like the sort of thing lampooned in Austin Powers movies—the kind of approaches that can indeed be thwarted by a quick-witted and quick-punching fellow like him. This is an environment where characters other than him are routinely shot in the street and such with the greatest of ease, but no one takes that direct approach with him of simply bursting through the door of his skid row-level hotel room and shooting him and grabbing the money or whatever.
Now some of that you can arguably explain away by saying that a lot of what is happening in the movie is not in fact as chaotic as it appears, but is being controlled by puppet master types who have reasons to manipulate him into doing this or that, scaring him without actually killing him, not letting him be robbed, etc. But that’s some as in 20%, 40%, or whatever. There’s still plenty that happens that no Marvin or corrupt general or other person pulling the strings could control down to the necessary level of detail to make things happen as they do.
Overall, I liked a lot about City of Ghosts and it held my interest throughout. I’m inclined to give it a modest thumbs up, as a decent movie with promise of being more than that if it weren’t held back by action movie clichés.