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With: Clive Owen, Gina McKee, Kate Hardie, Alexander Morton, Alex Kingston, Nicholas Ball
Written by: Paul Mayersberg
Directed by: Mike Hodges
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 94
Date: 06/25/1998

Croupier (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Aces High

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I nearly let Croupier get away from me and I'm glad I finally tracked itdown. Maybe I'm reacting to the fatigue of the tepid summer films, but Ifeel as if it's one of the best movies I've seen this year.

Croupier was the one of the 2000 Shooting Gallery films. These six underrated and forgotten films were rescued and released two weeks apart from each other, scheduled to play for two weeks only. When Croupier opened, it developed a strong word-of-mouth buzz that the other films didn't have. It continued well past its two-week run and is destined to be a considerable art-house money-maker.

Croupier is a British film brought to us by a couple of veterans. Director Mike Hodges made Get Carter (1970), a cult crime movie with Michael Caine, as well as Flash Gordon (1980). And screenwriter Paul Mayersberg penned Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Nagisa Oshmia's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). Croupier, too, is a crime film, and it's one of the most assured I've seen in ages. Every scene is quiet and still and carefully arranged, either with gaudy clutter in the casino scenes, or emptiness in the apartment scenes. It brings us into the world of the gambler, but from the other side of the table, the dealer or croupier's side.

I was reminded of such movies as John Dahl's Rounders (1998), Martin Scorsese's Casino (1995), and some of the James Bond films. But Croupier is like none of those. It doesn't use the so-called glamour of the gambling world to draw us in. It doesn't jump up and down and plead with us to love it. It simply exists and we enter of our own accord.

In the film, Clive Owen plays Jack Manfred, a blocked writer who takes a job as a croupier as fuel for his new novel. The casino he works in is decidedly third-rate and doesn't have any of the dancing girls or bright lights of the other movie casinos. The movie takes its time in setting up the character and the other people in his universe; his live-in girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee), a lady croupier named Bella (Kate Hardie), a low-life croupier David (Alexander Morton), the sexy Jani (Alex Kingston--pictured), a mysterious woman who seems to have ties to higher sources, and his father (Nicholas Ball) who gets him the job there.

The actual plot doesn't kick in until late in the movie, when Jani asks Jack to perform a task in exchange 10,000 pounds. All he has to do is catch a man who will be cheating and cause a diversion while other men rob the casino. Jack hesitates for a long time before accepting, as he refuses to gamble. To him, we're all either gamblers or croupiers, and he has chosen his side. But Jack does decide to take the money, and though any number of things can happen, we're not expecting what finally does. Many reviewers have complained about the film's handling of the robbery scene, but it is simply and wisely filmed from Jack's point of view, leaving the action in the background.

All the while, Jack is writing his new book, narrating to us from its text. Sometimes he is reading as his character, "Jake", talking about himself in the third person, and sometimes he is himself, reiterating some of his personal credos like, "hang on tightly; let go lightly." The writing is especially good, and so the narration takes on a life of its own, helping the picture move along.

Jack himself is a cold figure, and I suppose it's due to a sublime mix of the script, the direction, and the performance by the charismatic Clive Owen that we begin to like him and become interested in him. He radiates control and cool. He's so confident that he could probably outwit some of our flashier Hollywood gamblers, James Bond included. By virtue of its carefully layered sheen, Croupier becomes one of the very best movies of this beloved and sleazy genre.

Note: Croupier was released as part of the Shooting Gallery series, which also included: Judy Berlin, Such a Long Journey, Southpaw, and Adrenaline Drive.

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