Domino: Inspired by Life of Bounty Hunter Domino Harvey, Played by Keira Knightley

It would be easy to dismiss Tony Scott’s “Domino,” inspired by the life of the bounty hunter Domino Harvey who died in L.A. June 27, as a grungy MTV-like movie.

Yet, despite many flaws and excesses, there’s something innovative and genuinely disturbing about this tale of adventure and suspense tinged with dark comedy and horror–American style.

An adventurous director who takes risks, Scott often makes experimental movies within the studio system that fail to work, but he keeps going. A mixed bag, “Domino” semi-works, suffering from Scott’s lack of discipline, which results in an always engaging but uneven film that assaults our senses without giving us any quiet or pensive moments to absorb what we are seeing.

It’s easier to say what “Domino” is not. It’s not a biopicture, and it’s not a conventional actioner with a clear beginning, middle and an end. The last thing Scott is interested in is a straightforward portrayal of Domino’s life in a linear mode.

A movie of heightened reality, “Domino” unfolds as feverish nightmare, Rashomon-style. The frantic film, one of the fastest to be seen, is a surreal, psychedelic meditation on a complex and troubled woman who lived an adventurous, dangerous life before dying at the age of 35.

The “F–k Y-u” attitude that marked Domino’s life also characterizes the film, made in defiance of Hollywood conventions and any commercial considerations. It’s hard to tell who will see “Domino,” which may end up as a curiosity item on the midnight circuit due to its exuberantly stylized set pieces and coolly brilliant soundtrack.

Yet despite excesses and self-indulgences, “Domino” captures the dynamic personality and indomitable spirit that has spawned an adventurous life on the edge. Like Domino, a free spirit that never failed to surprise, “Domino” the movie is a loose, stream-of-consciousness yarn that refuses to abide by any storytelling rules or chronology.

While the film is not a mess, it’s confusing, particularly in the first sequences and the conclusion, which is a whole reel of orgiastic violence set atop a plush Vegas hotel, where all the characters meet and many lose their lives.

From the title cards, “Domino” signals that it’s not a movie that will slide down smoothly. They promise o show Domino’s real-life story–sort of–the emphasis is on sort of. Though Scott is using Domino’s life as a rough outline for his movie, he has no interest in making a biographical piece or stick to the facts.

It may be a matter of interpretation, but though the approach is stylized and detached, my reading is that Scott buys into the myth that Domino had created fort herself. Hence, “Domino” the movie might enshrine her as a mythic figure, a notion facilitated by her untimely death. According to “Domino,” storming through locked doors with a shotgun in her hand was the biggest adrenaline rush Domino’s ever had, which also helps her quell her inner demons.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, the story is too complex for mainstream audiences, who’ll need to pay attention to stay with the plot’s various strands. The narrative unfolds forward in flashbacks that are not necessarily sequential. The diffuse, complex narrative achieves continuity through two structural devices. Domino’s subjective voice-over links the various episodes and also offers a noirish self-reflexive commentary on her life. The second device is an FBI investigation by a criminal psychologist (Lucy Liu), replete with psychological-erotic tension and moral ambiguity, to which the story returns again and again, in an effort to clarify the specific time frame of the various episodes.

The story is roughly divided into two parts. The first details Domino’s life up to and including her decision to become a bounty hunter. The second shows what happens when the bounty hunters evolves into the realm of reality TV, which utilizes two real-life actors as the show’s hosts. The story’s undeniable comic-satirical elements go way beyond Oliver Stone’s 1994 satire “Natural Born Killers.” Scott uses actors from the long-running TV show “Beverly Hills 90210” to play themselves, along with an over-the-top TV producer and his assistant, plus some crooks and shady Mafia types to round out the plot.

Domino lived a brief but rich life. The daughter of respected actor Lawrence Harvey and model-turned-socialite Sophie Wynn (Jacqueline Bisset), Domino (Keira Knightley) was born into a life of wealth and privilege that seemingly didn’t interest her.

From early years, Domino rebelled against convention and the jet set. At the age of eight, her beloved father passed away and her mother Sophie put her in boarding school in a misguided attempt to tame her wild child. But, alas, nothing could repress Domino’s fiery nature–not friendships, not school. Even the luxurious excess during a brief stint at modeling pales, compared to her escapades and dreams. Things suddenly change, when she spots an ad in the L.A. Weekly and stumbles upon a seminar that recruits aspiring bounty hunters, an experience that immediately satisfies her thirst for excitement.

To her mom’s horror, Domino fell in love with the job and with her fellow adventurers, who over the years became her family. “Domino” presents another variation of the popular 1960s and 1970s theme of how professional groups, especially criminal ones (“Bonnie and Clyde”), serve as alternatives or substitutes for biological families. Domino finds her true calling and semblance of identity, when she joins a colorful band of reprobates that includes her wolfish ex-con boss, Ed Mosbey (Mickey Rourke), Choco (Edgar Ramirez), a ruggedly sexy Latino who secretly worships Domino, and Alf (Rizwan Abbasi), an Afghani ex-patriot obsessed with explosives for a mysterious mission.

Domino, Ed, and Choco form a family of outsiders: She’s young beautiful femme from London, Ed is a Godfather character from L.A., and Choco a hot-tempered Latino from El Salvador. They gravitate together because the family they have created is the first and only meaningful family they had known.

Despite personality differences, this unlikely foursome develops a synchronized style and goes on to become L.A.’s most successful, famous, and infamous bounty hunters. This being America of the Oprah era, what better place to show off their talent than on television, in a reality show

Enter manic producer Mark Heiss (Christopher Walken) and his faithful assistant, Kimmie (Mena Suvari), who sweet-talk the bounty hunters into becoming the stars of a new reality show, “The Bounty Squad,” hosted by “Beverly Hills 90210″‘s Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green, who play themselves.

Unbeknownst to cast and crew, Domino, Ed, Choco and Alf embark on their biggest case ever. In a bizarre turn of events, the bounty hunters find themselves tracking the most dangerous fugitives of their careers thanks to the antics of their employer, bail bondsman Claremont Williams III (Delroy Lindo), and head of an extended family that includes girlfriend Lateesha (Mo’Nique), their daughter, granddaughter, and Lateesha’s twin cousins. Faced with a financial crisis, Claremont hatches a plan to extricate himself from economic ruin. The plan goes terribly awry, and Domino’s team blast their way out of an FBI investigation that involves the mob, errant college students, and white trash thieves.

Richard (“Donnie Darko”) Kelly’s script centers on a young woman whose decision to become a bail agent forces her into the seamier side of life personally and professionally. Social class features prominently in “Domino,” beginning with its unusual heroine, a woman of privileged and gentrified background who chooses another class and lifestyle, and also a large aggregate of characters of mixed races.

“There are three classes in the world,” Domino says in what’s one of the film’s motifs, “the rich, the power, and everyone else in between.” Domino’s dual class membership results in a peculiar and conflicting lifestyle. While staying with her mom and stepfather, Peter Morton the famous restaurateur, she leaves her guns in the garage, then picks them up when she goes on her dangerous bounty-hunting missions.

Whether or not the story is based on facts is irrelevant for, among other merits, the film shows a wide range of characters that never get their share on the American screen, except perhaps in Tarantino’s films (“Jackie Brown”). Domino’s team became famous at a time when there weren’t many bounty hunters, a tough, dangerous business, dominated by working-class men.

Kelly has taken an unusual, imaginative approach to the story, bringing out its darkly comic, almost sci-fi, elements. While his tale is manufactured, the central characters are real and grounded. The thread for his fictional story is the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which acts as a microcosm for society. It’s the source of all information, and the nucleus of each story within the film. The DMV and its shortcomings function as an allegory for America’s faulty health care system. At the end, the thieves, followed by the bounty hunters, the Mafia, and the FBI all have to go through this institution for the money they’re searching for.

You don’t have to be a semiotician to analyze the film’s metaphors: the coin and the fish. Throughout, Domino flips a coin in the air (Heads you live, tails you die) signaling the aura of doom and fatalism from first frame to last, a feeling further reinforced by our knowledge of real-life Domino’s death. Flipping the coin, Domino wonders where it’s going to land, a running theme in the film, and in the end, it always lands just right for her. Like the coin she had stolen from a church as a girl, Domino has two distinct sides, those of an adrenaline junkie and wounded bird. Domino comes across as a woman who dreams of being a bounty hunter and then escapes that dream by the skin of her teeth.

Signs of premonition appear and reappear throughout the film; one after another of Domino’s gold fish die and are being tossed into the toilet.

Domino is an innocent British girl, a little Princess Di mixed with discomfort at being slotted into that role. Though from a privileged background, she decides to go off on her own path in the opposite direction, expressing her strong rebellious streak. Lacking interest in the superficial world of fashion, manicures and hairstyle, she embarks on a journey of excitement that makes her feel alive. “Domino” the movie makes you sense the heart-pounding excitement of entering into an unknown building, searching for a criminal suspect, while functioning as team member.

Grungy, tough, and independent, Domino is a “bad ass.” Getting recognition and becoming famous for something as non-traditional and dangerous as bounty hunting is what motivates her. What makes Domino good is her innate ability to remain calm, while a gun is pointed in her face. Instead of freaking out, or becoming hysterical, she gets eerily calm.

Perfectly cast, Knightley possesses the innocence, charisma, and tough presence needed. Rather than impersonate the real Domino, she is using her as an inspiration. A decade younger than the character, Knightley gives an astonishing performance based on a complete transformation. Physically, she’s barely recognizable to those who had first seen her in “Pirates of the Carribeans” and now “Pride and Prejudice.” Barely 20, Knightley is a major talent to watch.

Lateesha Rodriguez is brilliantly played by comedienne Mo’Nique; Macy Gray and Shondrella Avery portray Lateesha’s twin cousins, Lashandra and Lashindra, respectively, while Joseph Nunez is Raul Chavez. In a wonderful subplot, the four characters take on different personas, disguising themselves as the First Ladies Club!

Kelly’s script is edgy and full of dark humor, but still emotional and textured enough to be resonant and suspenseful; “Domino” is one movie where you never know what’s going to happen next.

Indeed, characters appear and reappear at random though always in a meaningful context. For example, at the end of the second act, the audience is suddenly introduced to “the Wanderer” (played by singer-actor Tom Waits), who appears in the desert out of nowhere. Playing a role similar to that of the chorus in Greek tragedies, “the Wanderer” gives a summation of what’s happened up to that point in the story. Gun-toting and sporting a bandaged hand, “the Wanderer” is Seventh Day Adventist who foreshadows the yarn’s future events. And while he seems to have a psychic connection with Domino, it’s unclear whether he’s real or a figment of her imagination.

Space doesn’t permit me to dwell on each aspect of this rich postmodern satire of American violence and TV that’s darker, sharper, and scarier than “Natural Born Killers.” Suffice is to say that “Domino” depicts a new cultural milieu, in which Spanish is used as much as English and there’s no clear line between what’s factual and what’s fictional, or what’s real and reel. Reflecting the new racial mix that the U.S. is rapidly becoming, the film challenges the notion of what’s a functional or dysfunctional family.