City if Ghosts: Roland Neveu
May 09, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

It has been 24 years since Matt Dillon made his movie debut, as a charismatic delinquent in ”Over the Edge.” Unlike, say, John Travolta, he has never lost the ingenuous, flash-eyed cockiness of his youthful buckaroo gaze. That said, Dillon doesn’t tend to play the brightest bulbs in the room, and the notion of him making his directorial debut with City of Ghosts, a Graham Greene-style mystery set in Cambodia — the first film to be shot entirely on location there in 40 years — sounded like a joke.

The joke, however, is on anyone with lowered expectations. ”City of Ghosts” turns out to be a supple, intriguing, and beautifully staged movie. It features Dillon, in his most forceful performance since ”Drugstore Cowboy,” as a scoundrel with a guilty heart who journeys to Phnom Penh to escape the feds and confront the partners with whom he masterminded an insurance fraud. Behind the camera, Dillon treats the city as a squalid maze of poverty and corruption, giving full, resonant life to the broken-shutter bars and hotel rooms, the teenage brothels, the former Khmer Rouge terrorists who despise Western exploitation but feed off it anyway. The superb supporting cast includes Stellan Skarsgard as a slimy interloper and, in the role of Dillon’s ambiguous mentor, James Caan, who acts with a lightly sinister panache that reminds you of why he was once a star.

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