(UK - 1998)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Clive Owen, Gina McKee, Alex Kingston, David Reynolds, Paul Reynolds,
Kate Hardie, Giles Cremorne, Nicholas Ball
Genre: Thriller/Mystery/Crime
Director: Mike Hodges
Screenplay: Paul Mayersberg based on his novel
Cinematography: Michael Garfath
Composer: Simon Fisher-Turner
Runtime: 91 minutes

"Gambling's not about money. Gambling's about not facing reality, ignoring the odds." - Jack Manfred

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Jack (Clive Owen) is all about knowing the odds, stacking them in his favor, and covering himself. That's why he can constantly say, "I don't gamble." As the statement relates to card games and the like, he's even telling the truth.

Jack was born in a casino in South Africa. His father, Jack Sr. (Nicholas Ball) was a schemer who never had any money because he was addicted to gambling. His mother eventually reached her breaking point and left them. Jack learned at an early age that the casino is the one that wins. He learned to question the conventional wisdom that gamblers are self-destructive. "He had come to believe that, in reality, they want to destroy everyone else. Their families, loved ones, everyone. Fuck over the whole world."

Jack liked to quote a passage from Ernest Hemingway. "The world breaks everyone. And afterwards, many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle, and the very brave, impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you too. But there will be no special hurry." Clearly, the world had irreparably altered Jack in some way. We don't know the exact details, but Jack's relationship with his father and his past at the casinos has caused him to shell himself up. He's created an unfeeling by the numbers persona to shelter himself from the horrors of his past.

Jack is supposed to write a book about soccer for Giles Cremorne (Nick Reding), a publisher with the motto "(he) who persists wins." It would be pointless for Jack to do so unless he first got a job covering a team. Jack seems like someone who was meant to be a writer, but viewing from afar is not Jack's gift. Put him near a person or a group of people though, and he's your man. He doesn't seem to have a personality or enjoy himself; he's totally detached and correctly sizes up everyone and what they are up to by knowing the type and utilizing numerical odds. "Jack is up above the world. A writer looking down on his subject. A detached voyeur."

If Jack knows one thing, it's casinos. He was a dealer when he lived in South Africa. Although he doesn't want to do it, he winds up taking a croupier (dealer) job at the local Golden Lion Casino in London that his father, who still lives in Africa, has set up for him. We wonder whether Jack takes the job because he hasn't gotten anywhere with his writing or as a way to break his writer's block.

What's interesting about Jack is that although he's cold and totally emotionless, everyone but the gambler he won't pay because he bet too late likes him. Jack is so detached that he can tell his girlfriend "you're all I desire" without the slightest expression, glow, or hint of passion. He is a very intelligent person though, always capable of saying something that will be acceptable to the other person without having to stray from his characterlessness. In addition to that and Clive Owen giving Jack that certain something that makes you like him even if you don't know why, Jack wins people by being good at what he does and not showing them anything they can dislike. He earns the trust of the casino manager David Reynolds (Alexander Morton) immediately by questioning why they only check to see if the serial numbers on the ball and the wheel correspond every two days. Reynolds questions his count, but Jack gives us one of his casino theories - always stand by your first count, chances are it's right - and quickly learns Reynolds weakness is that he can't count. Like most people, Reynolds believes Jack is honest because he's totally straight all the time.

At the casino, Jack meets some interesting characters that he realizes he can write about. There's the disgruntled croupier Bella (Kate Hardie), who did S & M for a year but quit for the casino because the punters (gamblers) can't touch her and at least she knows where she is. When Jack tells her his name she replies, "Hi Jack, welcome to the cesspit."

Another croupier Jack encounters is Matt (Paul Reynolds), a partier who drives around in a fancy car but is always on the run like Jack's father. Jack quickly detects that he's overpaying a certain customer by giving him the right number of chips but "accidentally" paying him in 25's rather than 10's. Jack brings this up when Matt is giving him a ride home. "Oh, so he's Mr. Clean," says Matt. "Wise up, Jack. The whole system is bent. The casino is nothing but legal theft. And that's okay. It's the system. Half the punters who come here are using stolen money - drug money - they haven't even earned it. We earn our money. I'm on your side, Jack. I don't need an enemy." When Jack learns what Matt is all about, "I want to fuck the whole world over. It's my mission" he immediately makes him the hero of his book.

Jack's girlfriend Marion Nell (Gina McKee) is totally different from him. She's a classless undereducated former police officer who wound up stuck in a dead end job as a store detective. She believes in hope and romance. She bets on the lottery and Jack, but I guess that doesn't prove much when she doesn't care about odds.

Marion doesn't understand Jack at all. She thinks Jack is romantic even though he has no personality and shows no feeling. She thinks he's an enigma, but he's just a contradiction. He shows the world one person, but really he's another. In fact, he develops an alter ego Jake. Although Marion lives with Jack and is the only person that's close to him, they only see each other a little bit each day and really don't know anything about what each other does or how they act the rest of the time. Marion does know she hates the character she sees in Jack's book.

Marion: You had a wonderful character before. The gambler, he was so romantic.
Jack: He was a loser. This guy's a croupier. He can't lose. People have shat on him all his life and now he's in control. He's a winner.
Marion: Is that your idea of a winner? He couldn't give a shit about anyone. He uses people.
Jack: It's because of the sex, isn't it? You don't like the sex in it.
Marion: I couldn't give a fuck about the sex. Most men will fuck a lamppost. He's just a miserable zombie. Is that the way you feel now? Is that what's happened to you?
Jack: Marion, it's a book.
Marion: Really? Then why is he called Jake? Why don't you come clean and call him Jack? There's no hope in it
Jack: It's the truth

Truth is very important to Jack. He doesn't care about money, fame, or anything like that. He doesn't care about right or wrong. He's certain that he doesn't want to write about something insignificant to him like soccer. He knows he wants to tell the truth about his world when he sees Giles making a killing off publishing a kill and tell book for Habib the Terrorist (Arnold Zarom). "Books piled like chips. Stack 'em high, sell 'em fast, make a killing. No dumb soccer novel for Jack. He would write about the world he knew from the inside."

Jack's view of the world is twisted though, warped by his alter ego. Jack theoretically wants to play things straight and float above the gamblers he's around, but he slowly becomes addicted to gambling with everything but the cards and chips. Although he plays the surest bets he can, that does not change the fact that his whole life becomes a gamble. Like most gamblers, Jack starts off small but as it possesses him more he becomes more deeply immersed in the Jake character and breaks every casino rule. Outside the casino, he gambles his relationship with Marion by getting involved with a classy predatory South African punter named Jani de Villiers (Alex Kingston) and having a one night stand with Bella. All of the while, Jack's persona remains unchanged. These gambles theoretically don't count due to Jake being the gambler.

The key point of the film is the seductive nature of gambling isn't limited to the punters; everyone in the environment is drawn into the world in some way. It hooks you, robs you of your integrity, and eventually leaves you devastated in some way. This is not presented in a manner that punishes the audience though. What the film does is hook us by making us voyeurs that gaze on with Jack. Then it slowly presents us with more and more moral dilemmas, which like Jack we can calculate the risk and reward of, as we come to realize Jack's refusal to be corrupted is one of his contradictions.

When Jack first gets his job at the Golden Lion Casino, he says to himself "Welcome back Jack, to the house of addiction." Jack's addiction was having all the power, becoming the master of his own game. His success had to be so automatic that he no longer heard the sound of the ball. It was a given that you'd lose.

Jack is not only addicted to his form of gambling and watching people lose, he's obsessed with his book. What appeals to him is the challenge. The casino is too easy. He's too good and smart for the people he's surrounded by. He wants to do something he hasn't seen done, pull off the ultimate tell all book about casinos, for they are all more or less the same.

One aspect that makes the film so good is the voice over narration. The film never really announces what it is about, but carries the viewer along by offering so many accurate insights into the job of casino dealing and the people that surround such a person. Watching this along with John Dahl's Rounders and Martin Scorsese's Casino would make for a very well rounded and informative night about the casinos. What makes that particular combination so interesting is the all cover different aspects of one place's routine, with Rounders showing us the gambler's perspective, Casino the owner's, and Croupier the dealer's. If math and numbers are more your thing, it could instead be paired with another of the best films from 1998, Darren Aronofsky's Pi.

What's interesting about the narration itself is that it's always done in third person and Jack regularly says one thing to himself/audience and another to the person he's talking to. This is not exactly revolutionary, but goes a long way toward getting over the differences between Jack & Jake. It also gets over the writer aspect of Jack's character because he narrates the film as if it's the images to the pages he's writing at that very moment.

The final point in favor of the narration is that the film could not work without it. The Jack of the casino doesn't say anything unnecessary because it slows up the game and results in the casino making less money. The rest of the time, Jack doesn't say anything that would someone inside his shell, so without the narration we would be lost like the people around Jack. In place of the riches the film contains, we'd have something dull, bland, and lifeless.

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The performance of Clive Owen goes a long way toward making the film. He is able to stand apart from the action, making his mind and his body two separate entities. This is why all his observing and calculating works, and it also makes you feel like you are there with him because obviously like his mind you are looking on observantly. He is able to show us that he's influenced by the events and personalities of the casino, while gazing on so attentively and only offering the subtlest hints of a personality to the people around him.

The writing of former film critic Paul Mayersberg, who penned two of Nicolas Roeg's best films The Man Who Fell To Earth and Eureka as well as Nagisa Oshima's very good Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, is excellent. The characters are all complex and interesting. The story is multi-layered and faceted, with all portions being intriguing. There are many dimensions to the plot, and in a way I've been able to write all these words without giving much idea as to the crime and thriller aspects. The film is totally unpredictable by the standards of current thrillers, but it's the absence of all the unnecessary and implausible aspects that make it so good. My only gripe is that I'm not sure you find out everything you need to know in the end, and what you do find out seems a bit too convenient.

Mike Hodges is not exactly a director associated with classics or even one that people have heard of. He earned acclaim in 1971 for his first feature, the influential hard-boiled thriller Get Carter (not the travesty with Stallone), but aside from Flash Gordon few people have seen anything he did since (his other "known" films are Black Rainbow, A Prayer For The Dying, and The Terminal Man). Hodges direction here has you scratching your head at where he's been all these years. It's the kind that often goes unappreciated. There's nothing flashy here, no effects or special techniques. This however is close to the ultimate in low budget filmmaking. The film is subtle, tight, tense, atmosphere, and engrossing. It seems to constantly build without ever tipping its hand as to the outcome. The film is believable because, in spite of the minimal budget, a realistic casino environment that captures the mood has been created. By the end of the film, you feel like you know the place and the characters that inhabit it.




* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *