“Croupier”, the latest offering from “Get Carter” director Mike Hodges partially revisits some of the concepts explored in his earlier masterpiece, such as truth and betrayal, morality and loyalty and sets them against a backdrop of shimmering casinos (all tacky upholstery and mirrored walls) and dark, seedy gambling dens, that parallels late 20th century London with early seventies Newcastle. The resonance between these two films effectively bookends Hodges’ career to date.
However the comparisons are strikingly obvious, and this path has been well trod in the reviews “Croupier” received at its’ time of release (I saw it on video recently). Yet it does remain to say that “Croupier” is a welcome return to form and familiar territory for Hodges, exploiting a specifically British blend of thriller that is dark, cold and savage, full of despicable characters and anti-heroes. Nevertheless, “Croupier” is somehow left flat due to the absence of a plot and a script that is worthy of the directorial presence, which contrasts heavily with the earlier work.
It is as if Hodges performs his role admirably, expertly creating the correct tone and atmosphere, that envelopes a collection of well conceived characters in a desolate state of permanent gloom and hopelessness. The London conveyed in “Croupier” is all basements and secret entrances leading from dark, rainy streets into over-lit pockets of excess and nihilism. Similarly, Clive Owen’s performance as Jack Manfred in the lead role is extraordinary, he comes across at times charming and charismatic, yet thoroughly callous, devious and unsympathetic. The constant tension between the outwardly calm and reserved image of Owens’ appearance and the inner monologue/voice over that signals his true emotions and feelings is well exploited.
However “Croupier” falls down somewhat in its failure to allow the variety of characters (with the exception of Owen) to emerge effectively from the background that has been so successfully crafted and conveyed. The overall story, and the sometimes ludicrously banal dialogue are solely to blame for this. Too often characters have little of anything engaging to do or say other than to circulate around the central performance. The supporting players remain in the whole unsympathetic and unattractive, yet they are so paper thin and undynamic that as a viewer one can’t even bring oneself to root for their success or downfall, they fail to project any sense of emotion onto the spectator. Alex Kingston’s glamorous female lead is lacking in mystery and unintriguing (one fails to see why Owen is drawn to her) and Gina McKee’s disaffected girlfriend is just plain annoying, but again in a completely unengaging way.
“Croupier” ends up presenting the viewer with a series of flat characterisations that, outside of the Croupier himself, demand little attention, and they merely become part of the backdrop of corruption that Owen finds himself wading through, a task he seems at times to relish with an exacting determination. As a character study the piece is more effective, presenting a pseudo-psychological interrogation of the Croupier of the title, exploring his aims and motives, yet offering him precious little with which to interact in terms of strong support. In this respect the inner monologue is effective, as the struggle of the Croupier is as much an internal (with his own moral sensibilities or lack of them) as an external one. Similarly the story offered a lot of early promise but simply petered out into an unremarkable and insubstantial conclusion.
Ultimately “Croupier” makes little impression after the scene has been set and the initial attraction of another elegantly composed foray into the British underworld has been exhausted; its ability to hold the viewers interest dissipates increasingly throughout.
Nevertheless the film offers a few glimmers of quality, most notably the central performance of the highly watchable Clive Owen and his study into the acutely amoralistic life of “The Croupier”. Yet the film suffers from a lack of quality tempering the pre-production stages, which effectively harnesses the director’s ability to create something truly special on screen, which I believe this really could have been.
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