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'The Croupier': Odds Couple

By Stephen Hunter
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)
"The Croupier" demonstrates that a movie need not be good to be cool.

It's from the legendary British crime director Mike Hodges ("Get Carter"), and it's very cool. It's only kind of good.

The cool comes from the title character, a buttoned-down control freak whose emotions run the gamut from A to A. Clive Owen plays this chilly bloke with the sang-froid of someone pickled in freezer-blasted vodka--which, no surprise, is his character's favorite drink.

Jack Manfred (Owen) is a croupier in a mid-level London casino. Professionally, he is that smooth fellow with the fast fingers, the deadpan manner and the genius for numbers. He can count upside down and backward and never make a mistake. Never. Ever. He doesn't ruffle, he doesn't flap, he doesn't shake. He can figure the odds in a nanosecond.

And, understanding the iron rule of the numbers, he is committed to the following proposition: He never gambles. Not in life and especially not in love, which he avoids like the plague, choosing instead to cohabit with a shrewish ex-policewoman (played by Gina McKee) who watches him like a hawk. We understand how wrong this relationship will be, even as we worry that Jack's chilly heart will seal him off from love forever.

Much of the attraction of "The Croupier" is nondramatic: It is the hypnotic ease with which Jack controls his environment. He's so smooth and self-contained that he's pure attraction. The fact that he doesn't need you makes it even better. He's like the drummer in a jazz band, behind the shades with a cigarette in his mouth, not noticing the audience, just laying down the rhythm of the piece.

Another pleasure of the movie is its sense of an inside story. Hodges, like Martin Scorsese before him, goes into a casino's locker rooms and pays attention to these petty gods of advanced adroitness, and finds them to be, sadly, mere mortals. None is really as cool as Jack; each has a shameful weakness or tic. Only Jack lives the Zen way of the warrior.

But then it takes what little narrative finally develops from a predictable permutation: an adventure in Jack's life during which he almost loses control. He's allowed himself to be gulled by a civilian, a sexy South African woman played by Alex Kingston (Jack has spent time in South Africa). Eventually she reveals that she's in staggering debt and that her underworld creditors have started beating her. Her only way out is through Jack's compassion, if he has any; she wants him to help with a casino robbery. Not to do anything, that is, but to react a certain way when a certain thing happens.

For whatever reason--perhaps because he's looking for material for a book and has the writer's tendency to invent messy situations for himself in quest of a plot--he agrees, with peculiar results.

I wish that at the plot level the movie clicked more precisely. A revelation that seems to explain everything in fact plunges what has happened further into murkiness. I'm still not sure who did what to whom, or why. But for its cold-as-a-mackerel heart and for Jack's laconic beauty (the performance recalls Laurence Harvey's in "The Manchurian Candidate"), "The Croupier" draws against a straight flush and wins.

THE CROUPIER (91 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry) is unrated but contains sexual innuendo, partial nudity and violence.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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