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‘Luck’ Episode Two: Dustin Hoffman Is Still Trying to Get Traction

'Luck' Episode Two: Dustin Hoffman Is Still Trying to Get Traction

Does it say something very good about television or something very bad about movies that Dustin Hoffman is appearing in (and producing) “Luck”?

Or maybe it’s a bit of good news/bad news. The amount and quality of outstanding television drama broadcast today almost certainly surpasses that of TV’s first golden age, 50-some years ago, when Hoffman first appeared in “Naked City” and “The Defenders.”

Even if someone were to write a youth-skewing picture with older stars like “The Wild Bunch” (which came out two years after Hoffman’s breakthrough in “The Graduate”), no one would make it. (Yes, Hoffman is older now than Holden and Ryan were then, but Hoffman has always played young, both back in “The Graduate” days and continuing up to the present.)

Hoffman’s “Luck” character, Chester “Ace” Bernstein, came out of jail in the show’s pilot; in the program’s next episode (written by John R. Perrotta and directed by Terry George) he’s finally front and center.

Spoiler alert:

In the second installment we learn how Bernstein landed in jail in the first place and discover what he wants now that he’s out. It emerges that he’s no career criminal – he’s a guy who wouldn’t rat out a partner who let him go down on drug charges after the associate’s coke stash was discovered in their New York condo. He’s generous, loyal, and although he’s out for revenge and known for his explosive temper, Bernstein is just not that dangerous.

Which is too damn bad. The best of executive producer David Milch’s creations have been utterly unpredictable – episode to episode, you never knew what “Deadwood”’s Al Swearengen or Sgt. Andy Sipowicz in “Hill St. Blues” would do. Hoffman’s Bernstein is certainly more compelling this week than last, but he still hasn’t had the moment where he either defines himself or just surprises the hell out of us.

Two episodes into “Luck,” we still haven’t heard any definitive lines, like “If he moves, kill him,” from “The Wild Bunch,” much less, “How does it feel to be so goddamn right?” (Perhaps it’s worth noting that the film was co-written by director Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green, who wrote for Hill Street when Milch did.)

Part of the problem with the new series is that Bernstein hasn’t had a worthy antagonist to tangle with. Most of his scenes are with confederate Dennis Farina and devoid of conflict. The rest are with characters who remain peripheral to the show.

This lack of chemistry may explain why Nick Nolte – Holden to Hoffman’s Ryan – fares so much better. In tonight’s episode, Nolte gets to play back-to-back scenes against Kerry Condon’s aspiring jockey Rosie and Richard Kind’s agent Joey Rathburn. It’s a lovely sequence: First Nolte’s Walter Smith denies Rosie what she wants and seems to deserve; then he helps her behind her back while simultaneously making sure that she won’t achieve her immediate goal.

Meanwhile, “Luck”’s degenerate gambling quartet continues to walk away with the show. Watching Jason Gedric at the poker table and with Richie Coster at the horsetrack are among the episode’s most engaging moments – along with a single, eerie shot of the empty track as seen from the POV of a jockey in the gate.

That one moment – a view no one but a rider can ever see, a moment filled with infinite possibilities – is enough to bring me back for more.

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