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April 20, 2000 2:00 AM
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REVIEW: "Croupier" Pays Off Big with Splendidly Nasty Tale of London Casino Life

REVIEW: "Croupier" Pays Off Big with Splendidly Nasty Tale of London Casino Life


by Brandon Judell




(indieWIRE/4.20.2000) -- At breakfast, a sweet little girl asks her dad: "What's the population of the world?" "Too many," he, a killer-for-hire, replies as he waits for his next assignment to eliminate a gent or two. In the same 1991 feature, the overlooked "Black Rainbow," Roseanna Arquette as a phony medium who starts foreseeing the future explains why everything is turned into an entertainment today: "It's so obvious. Only way people can make sense of the random stupidity of it all." Then when queried by reporter Tom Hulce about why she only has one-night-stands, Arquette chortles, "This way men lie with me and not to me."


This is pure Mike Hodges. Tongue-in-cheek misanthropy. It's a lousy world so you might as well kill off the villains that have done you wrong. Then get ready to reload your rifle to shoot up the next bad guys that will certainly follow in their footsteps.

Hodges' first theatrical release "Get Carter" (1971), which he also wrote and directed, is a masterpiece of vindictive surliness that has not aged a bit if you overlook the muttonchops on the guys and the cervix-length miniskirts on the gals. Michael Caine plays a London mobster who returns to his native Newcastle to revenge his brother's death and winds up knifing, drowning, bashing, overdosing and shooting up all the city's miscreants. (Steven Soderbergh's recently acclaimed "The Limey," which is about a father avenging his daughter's death, comes off as a pallid remake by comparison.)


With Hodges at his best, as he is with "Get Carter," every visual winds up as sly a joke as his characters' scathing bon mots. When a local exclaims, "Good God!" Carter retorts, "Is he?" And don't miss Carter's three-way phone-sex scene with Britt Ekland reaching orgasm while an eavesdropping landlady nearly topples over in her rocking chair.


But for such a master of the hilariously dour, Hodges' career has been an uneven mixture of camp ("Flash Gordon"), revamp ("Damien: Omen II") and Mickey Rourke ("A Prayer for the Dying").


Now Hodges has hooked up with Paul ("The Man Who Fell To Earth") Mayersberg, a screenwriter as perverse as he is himself. The result is a splendidly nasty, dry-humored look at the world of gambling in London called "Croupier."

Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) once worked in a casino in South Africa but back in England he is a writer. Not a very successful one though. Without his girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee) working as an undercover security guard in a department store, things would be a bit tough. So when his rogue of a dad calls and gets him an interview at a local casino, Jack bites the bullet and goes for the chat. Soon he's dealing blackjack and spinning the roulette wheel. "Welcome back, Jack, to the House of Addiction."


And Jack is addicted, addicted to feeling superior to those losers who squander their earnings nightly in front of him. What a setting for his novel! But for a novel to be interesting, there should be villains and sex and crime. Slowly, Jack gets entangled in the lives of his fellow workers and the casino's clientele. He even allows himself to get ensnared in a complex robbery scheme. But it's all for literature, isn't it? Well, not exactly. Let's settle for a film noir sort of book where all the characters start talking as if they're in a Lizabeth Scott B movie:


Girl: I'm betting on you.

Jack: I'm not much of a bet.


Girl: You are to me.

But as the roulette wheel spins faster and faster, Jack's world seems to be getting out of hand. He might even lose Marion who mopes: "I want to live with a writer not a croupier. I don't even know what the word means."


But you will by the end of this sly film. Visually, "Croupier" is far from imposing. But with Hodges milking Mayersberg's script for all it's worth, if you bother to listen closely, you'll come up a winner. Also worthy of some praise is "E.R."'s Alex Kingston who is a lovely double-crossing femme fatale. But it's Clive Owen, who was so fine as the incestuous brother in "Close My Eyes" and as the homosexual imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp in "Bent," who steals the show. If you need an actor who emotes thunderstorms while his flesh is as still as a spring day, look no further.

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