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House of Games

Gambling is metaphor in 'Croupier'

Richard von Busack


JACK (CLIVE OWEN), the hero of the British film Croupier, is an unsuccessful novelist who is urged by his moneyed thug of an editor (Nick Reding) to come up with an underworld novel. Circumstances force Jack into a job as a card dealer and croupier at a London casino. It's a life Jack knows well from his youth; his father was a dodgy professional gambler at the South African resort Sun City.

As Jack settles into the croupier's routine, he begins to drift out of his dispassionate relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee), a former cop. While Jack tends the roulette wheel, he begins to imagine himself as "Jake," the emotionless croupier who is the hero of his unwritten novel. Jack dyes his hair black and sweeps it back in a James Bond cut and starts wearing the old-time tuxedo and bow ties Sean Connery's Bond used to wear. Soon, Jack is approached by a sharp-featured, hard-luck girl who also works at the casino (Kate Hardie). Later, Jani (Alex Kingston), a customer with a gambling problem, corners Jack after work with a proposition. She asks the croupier if he'd like to be involved in a robbery.

Croupier offers what is supposed to be an insider's look at gaming, as in the warning Jack gets against stealing from the till: "It's easier to take one million pounds from a bank than to take a penny from us." But Croupier has the same problem as every too heavily narrated film--you're being told as you're being shown, and there's no room to form your own opinion on how much Jack is fictionalizing his experiences.

About 30 years ago, Croupier's director, Mike Hodges, stropped the young Michael Caine to a razor's edge in the film Get Carter. (The film is currently being renovated for a Sylvester Stallone remake.) Hodges followed up with Pulp, starring Caine in an equally memorable satire of the genre and a junk writer's life.

After the way Pulp laughed at the pretensions of pulp fiction, it's strange to see the same kind of quick-read philosophizing being treated as if it were profound. The theme of gambling as a metaphor for life has been worked over thoroughly; it's an idea that's a mile wide and an inch deep.

Still, Croupier works well as B material. Hodges and his screenwriter, Paul Mayersberg (who co-wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth), have made the film fast and sleek. It's an engrossing story, and Owen may well underact his way into stardom. Vocally, he is a ringer for Sean Connery. At first passing glances, he looks like the real thing, a budding great star.

It's on closer examination that you can see there's little behind the self-confidence and self-possession; Owen doesn't have that flicker of bemusement hiding under the superficial cold bastardry of Connery. When Jack tells Marion, "I'm not an enigma, I'm just a contradiction," he's exaggerating. Neither Owen the star nor Croupier the film has enough complexity to make room for a contradiction.

Croupier opens Friday, June 2, at UA Movies 5, 547 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. For details, see Movie Times, page 36, or call 528-7200.

From the June 1-7, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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