17 August 2004 | jhs39
Better than expected
Dario Argento's new thriller about a serial killer who forces the police to play video poker against him in order to save the lives of women he has kidnapped doesn't rank with the director's best work, but it is fast paced and entertaining if you aren't expecting too much.
After the disastrous Phanton of the Opera Argento made Sleepless, which was a self-conscious attempt to duplicate the success of his 1970's giallos, down to giving long defunct group Goblin credit for the soundtrack. Sleepless was certainly watchable, but it felt more like an Argento rip-off by an inferior director rather than the real thing, like the master had somehow turned into Antonio Bido or Luigi Cosi.
This time around Argento makes a movie that is less obviously grounded in his own previous success--The Card Player is far more generic than Sleepless, but since Argento isn't trying so hard to recapture past magic the film tends to work much better.
Unfortunately plotting and characterization have always been his achilles heel. Classic Argento films are about set-pieces and style, not plot. Stendhal Syndrome suffered because it turned into a character driven psychological thriller, which didn't play to his strengths as a filmmaker. The Card Player is largely plot-driven, lacking the stylistic flourishes and memorable set-pieces that defined his classic films and also offset his weaknesses as a writer. The Card Player generally feels like a made for TV crime thriller or even a pilot for a potential television show.
But while The Card Player isn't great or even mildly believable it is pretty fun on a cheesy B movie level, and the finale involving a handcuff key, a racing train and a lap-top manages to capture the delirious goofiness that came easily to the director back when he made Phenomena and Deep Red. It's not hard to imagine Argento giggling when he came up with his climactic scene and the sense of fun is infectious.
Most fans have probably accepted by now that Dario Argento isn't the filmmaker he was twenty years ago and that he will likely never make another classic thriller, but The Card Player is at least good enough not to disappoint, given the lowered expectations that now inevitably greet one of his movies. For me this was easily his best since Trauma. It also offers reason for optimism: Sleepless was a huge improvement over Phantom of the Opera and The Card Player is better than Sleepless, giving fans a reason to look forward to his next film.