City of sweat and schemes melts expectations

Matt Dillon, who stars in his directorial debut, “City of Ghosts,” gets an A for atmosphere, if little else. His mystery thriller, before it turns into an ordinary “Follow the bag of money” movie, is set in a Cambodian town that is a cross between the Wild West and an “Apocalypse Now” upriver nightmare. There are no actual heads impaled on stakes; it only feels that way.

There’s a rhythm to this place that Jimmy Cremmins (Dillon) is having trouble adjusting to, an entrenched, almost spiritual lawlessness that costs him his sunglasses and passport during his first few minutes in town. His hotel’s bar, run by a garrulous Gerard Depardieu, is a magnet for disaffected ex-pats, hustlers and sideshow types.

The country is filmed as if it were its own drug, one that prevents you from hopping a plane to somewhere with air conditioning. Jimmy’s Cambodia is a place where everyone except Jimmy seems to be in on something shady and possibly cosmic. He’s not the first American to underestimate the hypnotic power of this land.

After all that exotic buildup, the story in “City of Ghosts” (Dillon wrote the script with Barry Gifford) turns disappointingly generic, a series of scams and double crosses among greedy men. Marvin (James Caan) is the slippery mastermind of this outfit, a man who bilked homesteaders out of their insurance money back in the States. Jimmy, disgusted by his part in the scheme, wants to find Marvin, get his cut and quit the business.

Another member of the team, Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgard), is clearly not to be trusted, possibly because he is perspiring the most. In the Cambodian heat, sweat is a given, but the copious amounts of it become key to the characters’ degrees of duplicity. Kaspar is on the really sweaty side of honesty, while Jimmy’s faint sheen means he is undergoing a crisis of conscience.

The even fainter glow on Natascha McElhone as a British art restorer and possible love interest looks innocently sexy. Her you can trust.

For Dillon, this is an unsteady directing debut in more than one sense. The hand-held camera is much too insinuating for what is essentially a story we have seen many times before. And the cuts and transitions are dizzyingly abrupt.

Ultimately, Jimmy is a guy you just can’t put your finger on in a story that begs for a center, or a cold drink.