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'Croupier': Deal Us In

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2000


    'Croupier' Clive Owens plays it cool and detached as Jack, but something deep draws the character into the casino. (Shooting Gallery 2000)
"Croupier" is a smoothly executed jab in your solar plexus, a lean, smart film noir that pokes at you with quintessentially English disdain and sarcasm. But behind this chilly cynicism, you'll find gritty humanism. This thing does have a heart in there somewhere.

The film's directed by Mike Hodges, who made the cultish "Get Carter," the 1971 Godfather of all British crime thrillers, which starred Michael Caine in two of his finest acting hours. (It also came out before mutton-chop sideburns became a weary affectation.)

"Croupier," written by Paul Mayersberg (who also wrote "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"), shares the movie's tough-guy (and tough-gal) sensibility, in which the freest individuals march to their own drummer, deaf to conventional morality and the lures of the underworld. In a Hodges film, being your own man, or woman, is what it's all about.

The story's about Jack Manfred (Clive Owen), a man who is almost hermetically sealed with confidence, despite his unpromising social position.

An unpublished writer living in a step-down flat, he's still at the intimidating beginning of his novel-to-be. He hasn't even figured out the title. But he moves through life with a sort of ruthlessly casual elegance, even though he's obliged to sell his beloved car to pay back the rent he owes his live-in girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee).

Jack's life takes a turn for the dramatic when his shifty South African dad, Jack Sr. (Nicholas Ball), gives him a call.

It seems a Mr. Reynolds at the Golden Lion Casino in London is looking for a croupier, or dealer. Would he be interested? Jack, trained by his father in South Africa, is loath to return to this calling.

But he decides to take the job for more than financial reasons.

Becoming a croupier – which for Jack means a radical makeover, including dyeing his blonde hair, getting a manicure, dressing in a tuxedo and adopting a frosty professional attitude – will be great material for that aspiring novel. But there's something deeper that draws him. Although Jack never gambles, he gets a high from watching "punters" (gambling customers) lose. After all, that's the usual story in casinos: The house wins, the gamblers lose.

In this BadFellas morality play, Jack will meet many figures out to tempt him, confound him or help him. But which is which? Marion, who though devoted to him cannot accept the sudden changes in his lifestyle? Bella (Kate Hardie), the casino waitress who – upon first meeting him – thinks nothing of stripping before him to get dressed for work, then becomes his friend? Or Jani (Alex Kingston), a mysterious South African gambler who knows when to quit at the tables and makes Jack an intriguing but dangerous offer?

Powered by Hodges's spare, hip direction, "Croupier" is a polished, intriguingly layered experience that evokes the dark spirit of the old British crime films. In this world, everyone is guilty of something, from the casino staff to the dealers to the punters. Quick decision-making is everything, the kind of card-counting instincts you need at blackjack. Jack, a rather cynical observer who coolly watches the vice around him even as his relationship with Marion deteriorates, seems the most likely to survive this world, especially with his highly effective, personal mantra: "Hang on tightly, let go lightly."

But in "Croupier's" scheme of things, the important thing for Jack isn't just survival, it's a matter of living with the choices he makes. Little by little, you realize, there is something moral to Jack's makeup, an integrity of sorts. With his refusal to gamble, his acknowledgment of his own faults, his hatred of cheats, and an awareness of who deserves help and who does not, he emerges as something of a paragon of virtue – dyed hair and all. So who says dark movies can't have happy endings?

CROUPIER (Unrated, 91 minutes) – Contains sexual scenes, nudity, violence and obscenity.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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