Dario Argento is a director who is not unique in the scope of a career; there are many who have a kind of hot streak in their youth and formidable years, and then have a bit of a downward slump as they age. If you are a creator who is so connected with the work created early on, and your current work held up to those standards, it can be difficult. The director of such inspiring and daring modern horror films as Suspiria, Tenebre, Deep Red, even Opera in the 70's and 80's is not the same caliber director who made The Card Player in 2004(or Il Cartaio in native Italy), but a simple question comes as this: is it any good in and of itself? In short, it's perfectly competent and has its moments, but it's nothing special.
It's another of the patented Dario-Giallos (that's what they could be called anyway, kind of sounds like a demented ice cream parlor or something). Here the killer, once again in black gloves and/or ski-mask (here it's both) collects female victims one by one and taunts the police - this time Argento and his co-writer Ferrari have an updated, 21st century model for their story: this killer loves himself some poker, specifically that you can play online. So he emails the cops, specifically officer Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca), and challenges them: if they play a poker game with him, and win, he'll let the woman go - if they don't play, or lose, she's dead.
|After a certain point, black gloves somehow become rubber in the 21st century...|
This plan doesn't go well at first - hey, says the Lieutenant or Sergeant or whoever it is that's in charge, time for a generic piece of "We don't negotiate etc etc" piece of dialog as reasoning - but then there's some luck that comes the way of this Italian investigation team (all speaking English, by the way, more on that momentarily): first comes with an Irish cop from England (yeah, it's one of those deals, here by dependable character actor Liam Cunningham), and then with a sudden find in a game bar, a 19-year old poker-whiz. At least, anyway, this kid appears to be a whiz based on how much he wins at the poker-slots.
Argento's reputation has been built over the years on his set pieces - by and large with the music of Goblin (here there's still Claudio Simonetti, who was one of the band's chief people, though here it's not quite the same, not the same umph and a different, more primetime TV-level energy) - and The Card Player does have some of these to spare. It's just the varying quality that keeps things sort of at arms length.
The kid at one point is flirting with a woman at a bar, and then she runs out and he gives chase; this isn't in any kind of dirty way, it's just in that adrenaline-rush of excitement that comes with young, probably lustful intentions. But she keeps running off, sort of giggling, and he runs after her for what seems like a couple of miles, all the way down to a waterfront. Here her full plan is revealed, and it turns out she's just a prop for this psychopath, but it's an excellently shot and paced chase with a lot of energy to the camerawork and how the actors play it in such a way that it is likely bad news, and yet there's the chance it's all just a part of the Game of Love as it were.
|Yeah, mostly a thriller, which is what Giallos technically are but.... MY GOD!|
There's also a tense and suspenseful sequence where detective Brennan is following a lead that will take him to the killer's lair, and while a lot of it is car-bound it has a similar energy and urgency that Argento reaches up to as a director. These moments may not be like Best of a Career or anything, but they show a filmmaker getting some good pacing and drawing the audience in to the action. But he seems to not really find any original way to present or shoot a scene where the killer (surprise) gets into the home of the intrepid Anna, and their struggle and fight (in the dark) feels flat and doesn't have the same urgency as those other scenes.
And then there's the card games themselves, where people sit at computers and we get the shot-reverse-shot-waiting-for-cards-to-turn pacing, and it's hit or miss. Sure, there's a built-in sort of tension as to what card will do what next. Butt the characters, naturally, have to tell the audience what all the moves mean - some, surely, will be poker players and know what this means, some of us, like me, won't - and it's up to the actors to carry a lot of this. Not to mention in these poker set pieces, a little screen of the female victim is in the screen to the left (with the cards flipping on the right), and although it's meant to add to the horror and suspense of the situation, with the exception of one moment where the character tries to get away it gets a little grating on the nerves. We get it, clocks ticking, she's bound and gagged. But... is it too much?
I mention that it's up to the actors to make a lot of this palatable. The main problem with the Card Player is that, at least on the DVD I had, the actors are all by and large (exception like Cunningham and Rocca) are dubbed, even if it looks like they are speaking English and this may be them saying the words phonetically. Not that Argento's always been the best director of actors in this way - they just need to say the lines that'll get the mystery moving from point A to B to C and so on - but even here, these people are lame, unconvincing and the dialog is generic as well. And character traits are so stock that it could be parody if it wasn't dead-serious: the Irish cop is a drunk (whoa, stop the presses), and the female cop had a dead cop father with a card playing history and she has a book all about poker.... why SHE doesn't play the killer, until a certain point which I won't get into due to spoilers, during these police stand-off scenes doesn't make much sense.
There's some good music in a few parts and Rocca is fine as an actress - not great, but fine, and that's enough - and Argento never embarasses himself too bad with the plotting. The main problem is that it doesn't really do anything original, even with this poker ticking-clock game. A lot of the appeal of poker comes with playing with an opponent face to face; over a computer screen, one has to wait to see each card flipped, one by one, and it takes up a lot of time. It's shot with a degree of professionalism, but not a ton of artistry (one shot that pans across some flowers at a cemetery to a funeral scene is probably my favorite shot, or at least the moment memorable that doesn't involve a brutal killing or body being torn open port-mortem). So, it's not bad, it's acceptable fare. But from this director, shouldn't we expect more, even in his latter years?
Oh, and PS: this has the oddest, most unnecessary coda I've seen in a long time. It's like... what?
PPS: The British DVD cover is disturbing but kind of awesome - one thinks this could be on the Joker's porn stash on his laptop: