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'Hard Eight'

By Kevin McManus
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 28, 1997

The casinos of modern-day Reno, Nev., provide the backdrop for this interesting tale of a professional gambler and his protege.

At the outset, we see the two men hook up: sixtyish Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a virile, laconic gentleman who clearly has weathered tough times, and John (John C. Reilly), an amiable lunk who’s willing to learn whatever Sydney wants to teach him.

The truth about Sydney -- his background, his motive in befriending John -- turns into the story’s Big Question. And we suspect that the answer may be dropped on us during some violent act involving John’s volatile friend Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson). The payoff, when it finally comes, is satisfying.

Working from his own screenplay, rookie director Paul Thomas Anderson shows off the same sort of quirky smarts that Joel and Ethan Coen did in "Blood Simple." Anderson coaxes top-notch performances from the male leads and also from Gwyneth Paltrow, whose dimwitted waitress/hooker falls for John. Watch for a nifty cameo by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays a crude jerk who taunts Sydney during a game of craps.

Contains one murder by handgun, one brief beating and a few undeleted expletives.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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