Saturday 16 May 2020

Movie Review: The Domino Principle (1977)

A conspiracy thriller, The Domino Principle (also known as The Domino Killings) takes forever to get to the point only to realize it does not have one.

Decorated Vietnam War veteran Roy Tucker (Gene Hackman) is serving a long prison sentence at San Quentin for murdering the former husband of his wife Ellie (Candice Bergen). He passes the time enduring the tall tales of his talkative cellmate Spiventa (Mickey Rooney). Tagge (Richard Widmark) and Ross (Eddie Albert) represent mysterious interests and start visiting Tucker in prison, delving into his background with a promise of an early release in exchange for unspecified assignments.

Eventually Tucker and Spiventa gain their freedom in a staged escape. Transported to Costa Rica, Tucker is provided with a fake identity and bank account and reunited with Ellie at a lavish villa. He also meets retired General Reser (Eli Wallach), another of Tagge's associates. Relocated to Long Beach, Tucker balks at the designated assassination assignment, endangering Ellie's life.

Director and producer Stanley Kramer, known for his cerebral socially conscious dramas from decades past, steps way outside his comfort zone and predictably stumbles. The Domino Principle clambers onto the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam pile of films tapping into government mistrust, but the adaptation of Adam Kennedy's book is a vacuous exercise in hinting at something that never happens.

The premise of dark hands manipulating everyone and everything is used as an excuse to explain nothing, and instead the film settles down first as a prolonged prison interview and then a travelogue hopping from San Francisco to Costa Rica then Long Beach. The cinematography by Fred J. Koenekamp and Ernest Laszlo is often spectacular and always bright and colourful, but cannot hide the absence of actual content.

Tagge, Ross and General Reser represent a heavy-hitting trio of mystery men (and talented actors) who never reveal anything beyond shuffling Tucker from one location to another. The assassination assignment is inferred, neither the victim nor the cause ever discussed. And Tucker's insubordination at every turn, attempting with decreasing success to wrangle free from the men now controlling his life, becomes the tired focus of the film.

All of which is a waste of a stellar cast. Gene Hackman, Richard Widmark and Eli Wallach all deserved better, and even Eddie Albert and Mickey Rooney deliver better-than-usual work here, all of it unfortunately misdirected. The biggest victim is Candice Bergen, miscast and struggling mightily in deglamorized role.

The Domino Principle bungles both the set-up and the knock-down.

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