Jason Statham movies come with certain, modest expectations. “Wild Card,” in which Jason Statham plays a character named Nick Wild, only adds to those expectations. And so, it’s a bit baffling that this second attempt (the first is a mostly forgotten 1986 Burt Reynolds vehicle) at bringing William Goldman‘s novel “Heat” to the big screen — adapted by the legendary screenwriter himself — seems uncertain what to do with the star, or the material. Trying to find a middle ground between an action packed Statham vehicle, a ’70s style mood piece, and a ’90s era character-actor packed crime tale, “Wild Card” is not surprisingly an unsuccessful marriage of those ill-fitting genres that strains to fill the already meagre, barely ninety minute runtime with anything of substance.
“…do not waste the audience’s time. Bring the Inciting Incident into the story as soon as possible,” screenwriting guru Robert McKee told Storylink in 2009, and he would certainly disapprove of how long things take to get rolling in “Wild Card.” After a mostly unnecessary opening sequence which serves little purpose except to show off Sofia Vergara in a very form fitting sweater, the film unhurriedly establishes that Nick Wild is one of those Las Vegas guys who drifted into town and never left, knows everybody, but is going nowhere. He works as a security consultant for lawyer Pinky Zion (Jason Alexander), and while he has some casual acquaintances — the closest being diner waitress Roxy (Anne Heche) — he mostly keeps everyone at a distance, and harbors idle drams of leaving Nevada and sailing in Corsica. But two people enter his life and shake things. The first is Cyrus (Michael Angarano), a quiet, verbose, and wealthy young man who hires Nick to show him around town and double as his bodyguard. The other is Nick’s friend, Holly (Dominik García-Lorido), who has a far more important request — find the men who raped and beat her, “soften them up,” and then lead her to them so she can exact revenge.
Nick has managed to survive in Las Vegas this long without getting mixed up with the mob, so when he finds out smarmy Danny DeMarco (Milo Ventimiglia), the son of an East Coast crime boss, is behind the attack, he’s reluctant to help. As horrific as the attack on Holly was, she’s all too willing to send him into the lions den to possibly die to get her retribution, and that gives him reason for pause. Moreover, once Nick upsets the apple cart, there’s no telling how deep or deadly the repercussions will be. But nevertheless, he can’t shake what Holly tells him about what happened to her. He goes through with it, serving up Danny and his goons on a bloody, beaten platter. Holly, brandishing a pair of garden shears, leaves her mark on Danny’s penis, but perhaps more painfully, humiliates the macho tough guy and leaves him in blubbering tears. She’s evened the score, and bounces out of town, but Nick knows it’s only a matter of time before Danny comes for him. It has taken a third of the movie to get to this point, and we know the showdown won’t come for another hour, so what happens in the interim?
Not too much. The picture seems to fall into a slumber, which it mistakes for attitude, under the desert sun, but never drifts off completely, with a variety of Las Vegas character types continually popping by. Through it all, there’s a long gambling sequence, some weary dialogue about luck and fate, and some very dull puzzle piece narrative movement that will all eventually lead to what is ultimately a very anti-climatic end. In fact, there are only three action sequences in the film, in case you were wondering. The one described above, ending with Holly and the garden shears, another not so memorable casino set-piece that’s mostly forgettable but snaps the movie out of its stupor in the mid-section and, of course, the ending. You almost feel bad for action director Corey Yuen, who previously worked with Statham on “The Transporter” films and “The Expendables,” as he seems to be tasked with enlivening the picture when the film’s actual helmer Simon West (who previously worked with Statham on “The Mechanic” and “The Expendables 2“) seems incapable. Again, there is a strange disconnect between the star and the movie around him, and even the action scenes are treated fairly routinely, shot in poorly edited, slow motion.
As the nifty “The Bank Job” proved, Statham is capable of working in a much more dialed-down mode when required, but he’s not an actor who can elevate material. It needs to be there on the page first, and it’s just not there in Goldman’s script. What’s more frustrating is to see the array of talent (which also includes Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis, and Max Casella), most of whom show up for one or two scenes and exit the movie, so thoroughly wasted, particularly when the characters are this promising. “Wild Card,” mostly taking place in second-rate casinos and in establishments far off the main strip of Las Vegas, creates a great world for this film, but forgets to deliver a story worth telling, or even attempts to give any meaning or weight to certain creative decisions, like setting the film around Christmas, another tired genre trope trotted out for no significant purpose. Should someone even dare a third attempt with this material, I’d advise taking it to television, ditching Goldman’s script, keeping the characters, and turn it into an old-school flavored weekly procedural, with Nick tackling a fresh assignment each week. “Wild Card” certainly didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, but the film doesn’t even bring a full deck of cards to play with.
Even if the content of “Wild Card” leaves much to be desired, visually the film is at least a bit more inspired. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson (“Captain America: The First Avenger,” “The Expendables 2”) avoids the usually glossy depictions of Las Vegas, and opts for a look that captures the grimier feeling of the off-the-beaten-path corners of the hedonist mecca, with the daytime exteriors sun baked and desaturated, and the interiors feeling palpably like the kind of places that are cleaned once a week instead once a day. But it’s still not enough to hide the fact that “Wild Card” doesn’t even have enough chips to play at the lowest stakes table. [C-]