Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Croupier

By Marjorie Baumgarten

JUNE 19, 2000: 

D: Mike Hodges; with Clive Owen, Kate Hardie, Alex Kingston, Gina McKee, Nicholas Ball, Kate Fenwick, Nick Reding. (Not Rated, 89 min.)

"A wave of emotion came over him. He was hooked again: watching people lose." That's how Jack Manfred (Owen), the titular croupier, views himself and his lot. A novice novelist from South Africa, Jack takes a job in England ­ proffered by his bartender father ­ at the Golden Lion casino and proceeds to turn his life upside down. It's a portrait of the artist as a young cardsharp, and though Jack has a golden rule of his own (the oft-repeated refrain, "I don't gamble"), he somehow manages to find himself cheating on his long-suffering girlfriend, breaking every rule in the house (no fraternizing with other employees, no fraternizing with customers outside of the casino, no cheating), and sidling his way into the novel of a lifetime by assuming, in his head, the identity of his literary alter-ego, Jake the croupier. This allows him free reign from his conscience, more or less, and the ability to willfully explore the more seedy aspects of his new job. In short, Jack gambles more compulsively than anyone else in the film, rules or no rules. Croupier has garnered sterling reviews since its 1998 U.K. release. Picked up here in the U.S. by indie distribution company Shooting Gallery, it's enjoying equally grand notices stateside, though what these reviews usually fail to notice is that the film is so resolutely British, so cold and so calculating, and with only the barest glimmer of a sense of humor, that it's likely to be very difficult for most American filmgoers to digest. Certainly Jack, with his slicked-back black hair and immaculate, chilly demeanor, is hardly your average protagonist. There's something of Ian Fleming in his character: He could be one of the faceless, nameless croupiers James Bond so often finds himself seated before. In this case, Bond, James Bond, would do well to watch himself. This croupier is a shark, reveling in the losses that surround him, scheming to create the perfect novel while alternately pitching himself headlong into the sterile, vaguely corrupt world of casino gaming. Our first glimpse of Jack does nothing to dissuade the notion that this is a man to watch out for. He's urbane in the extreme, almost superhumanly so, but his folly ­ an inability to connect with or trust those around him ­ acts as a screen. His life is no more real than the house-run games of chance he presides over. He's less a shark than, as his beleaguered girlfriend so succinctly puts it, a zombie, back from the dead and ready to deal. Hodges, who directed the early Seventies minor hits Get Carter and The Terminal Man, has come a long way (via, I fear, the execrable though aptly titled Morons From Outer Space)since then. Croupier, while it may at times bog down in the minutiae of the business, is all of a piece, 89 minutes inside the head of a writer who wants to be a croupier who may or may not want to be human. Owen's brilliant turn as Jack is icily cool; despite his third-person narration, you're never quite sure what this fellow's going to do next. Hodges directs with an equally cool hand, very steady, very controlled, and very much stirred, not shaken. Admittedly, Croupier takes some time to get going, or, at the very least, it takes some time to get into. Viewers who stick with it will be rewarded, not only by Owen's masterful turn, but by Hodges' prickly, not-quite-a-surprise ending. How veddy British.

3 Stars

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