Directed by Mike Hodges
Stars Clive Owen, Gina McKee, Alex Kingston
Most of crisp, English film Croupier takes place in a second-tier London casino, where the codes of conduct and criminality of the gaming industry are held to fascinated scrutiny. Croupier is the creation of two old pros of British cinema, writer Paul Mayers-berg, who scripted The Man Who Fell to Earth, and director Mike Hodges, best known for Michael Caine's breakthrough gangster movie Get Carter in 1971. (You'll be hearing more about Get Carter when Sylvester Stallone's remake opens this fall.) In Croupier, Hodges and Mayersberg's bets pay off most handsomely when they shed fresh light on the film noir genre. Many modern would-be homages mistake film noir simply for melodrama with a specific visual style, in which neon light and gunfire shine through shadow and cigarette smoke. But the heart of noir involves people losing their moral compass or trying to survive in a world without one, and crime is not a requisite.
Croupier's Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) is by no means a sociopathic killer, but he's as much a film noir antihero as the talented Mr. Ripley or one of Jim Thompson's amoral murderers. More a serpentine character study than a conventional thriller, Croupier tracks Jack's eerie evolution along an intriguing path that can't avoid several dead ends.
Born the son of an unredeemable gambler in a South African casino, Jack's history carries some sordid baggage. Living in London, he aspires to be a serious novelist and get inside the heads of the public, but a publisher friend is more interested in soccer pot-boilers or publishing the "kill and tell" book of a celebrity ex-terrorist. Hard up for cash, Jack takes a tip from his poor but still connected Dad and seeks a job at the Golden Lion Casino.
The mirrored decor of the gaming house reflects the misleading surfaces of sanctioned gambling and illegal cons. Jack's interviewer (a predatory Paul Reynolds) times his sorting of poker chips and tests his powers as a blackjack dealer and roulette croupier, and from that moment we're as hooked as Jack is. We learn the house rules with fascination (a dealer may not gamble anywhere and is forbidden to fraternize with the "punters" or gamers) and wonder how long it'll take Jack to start violating them.
We quickly discover that he's addicted not to gambling but to the life -- he likes to safely witness people losing. He begins writing a novel about a callous, imaginary croupier called "Jake," and Jack begins to so identify with his character that he becomes indistinguishable from it. The film also hinges on his relationships: His trusting girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee) becomes dismayed at the changes in his life, art and personality; Hard-boiled fellow dealer Bella (Katie Hardie) seems more of a kindred spirit; and high-rolling South African Jani (Alex Kingston) leads him further astray.
Owen, with his tuxedo, jet-black hair and hooded gaze, nicely evokes Sean Connery circa Doctor No. But while Jack's iciness is an integral part of his character -- he explicitly wants to be "a detached voyeur" -- Owen overdoes it. Or to be more precise, he underdoes it, reining in Jack's emotions so tightly that his chilly narration sounds merely bored. It's good that Jack's many voice-overs explain his compulsions, because Owen's acting gives away almost nothing. We can only assume he was ever affectionate with Marion in the past. It doesn't help that the dialogue spells out the themes too baldly: "I'm betting on you." "I'm not much of a bet."
While Jani stays a question mark for most of the film, Kingston makes her a quirky and expressive one, more fleshed-out than the femme fatales from film noir central casting. A few years ago Kingston provided a remark- able star turn as Moll Flanders for "Master-piece Theater" and is probably most famous as the capable Dr. Corday on "ER." Her paradoxical performance here -- elegant but earthy, anxious but cagey -- affirms the actress's enormous potential. Her Raphaelite curls belong on the Hollywood A-list.
With so many characters working so many different angles (Marion even has connections with law enforcement), you wonder if Jack will be ensnared in a climactic heist along the lines of Ocean's 11. The finale does feature a complex caper of sorts, but Jack's involvement is kept on the periphery, and the outcome is far from cut-and-dried. Though the end features several twists, they muddy the proceedings rather than illuminate them. The storytelling is clipped and efficient, but you wonder whether Hodges and Mayersburg have been bluffing the audience all along.
But Croupier's winnings make up for its losses. Its research uncovers many interesting details, from the croupier's goal of 40 roulette spins per hour to the ways of catching a cheat. And though Owen disappoints, the film successfully exploits its conception of croupiers and novelists as observer above the fray. Jack asserts that since a croupier never gambles, he never loses, and thus is always a winner. But he sounds like he's just hedging his bets.
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