Thursday, March 01, 2007

Mike Hodges, "Croupier" (1998).

I finally got around to watching Clive Owen in Croupier. In this Mike Hodges-directed British neo-noir, an aspiring writer named Jack (Owen) mines the casino milieu for material. Jack obviously suffers from a drastic deficit of imagination, since he feels a need to go back into the gaming world for something resembling substance. We learn that Jack actually grew up around casinos in South Africa. He certainly has amazing sleight of hand and card-sharp skills. The viewer is treated to a deft display of dealer skills as Jack nonchalantly demonstrates his qualifications for his new job. This set of shots, combined with others we see on Jack's first day at the casino, suggest a promise that the film never quite delivers.

For some reason Hodges found it necessary to employ a cheesey first person narratorial voiceover, with Owen articulating and explaining the world with which he has re-engaged. I found it extremely distracting and unfortunate, as this contrivance exposed all the flaws of the screenplay. I was reminded of the authorial axiom, "Show, don't tell". If the writer of this film didn't have the skills to gradualy let the audience in through character dialogue, then perhaps someone else should have been given the job. Maybe he/she simply had a hard-on for Scorcese, who is enamored of this narrator device.

I've been hearing for some time that Clive Owen is an excellent actor, and that this is a good showpiece for his skills. If that's the case, then I feel he is a bit overrated. I don't know if it was the eighties-style hat that he wore whenever he sat down in front of his typewriter, or if it is his goofy Nick Cage-like expressions... but I have to say that I'm not a huge fan based upon his work in Croupier. The supporting cast was professional in that restrained English manner that makes any UK production watchable. But this repressed quality also makes it difficult to portray any of the melodramatic qualities we expect within the neo-noir genre.

Particularly difficult to pull off in today's era are the dime store philosophy one-liners that the actors in Croupier are asked to deliver. It's not that the performers lack chops... but rather that it's really hard to say something like "Hang on tightly, let go lightly" without sounding like a complete dork- even with a distinguished English accent. Some very awkward editing does little to help persuade me of the realism of these interchanges. On the other hand, the glimpses we get of three-time losers at the gaming tables seem fairly convincing.

It's all fun if you sit back and relax with few expectations. The reviews I read made this sound like a minor classic, full of existential depth. It is not. But like any other twisty and low-key thriller, there is enjoyment to be had in trying to figure out where the story is going next. There are a few sexy scenes, and one brief shot of full-bodied, female nudity (the scrumptious Alex Kingston)... and I'm sure the ladies don't find Owen too difficult to look at. Yet it's clear that Hodges is trying to tell us something about people who gamble... versus people who run the game. But any meaning along these lines is only vaguely sketched and poorly articulated.

Despite its minor failings, Croupier is still a good bet over the vast majority of Hollywood pulp heist films.

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