Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Card Player (2004)

After so much bad press The Card Player received, I had steered clear from this newer Argento film for many years. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is still one of my favorite horror films, and I also like his Deep Red, Tenebre, Inferno, Opera and Bird With the Crystal Plumage. While I was disappointed with his first season episode Jenifer, for Masters of Horror, his second season offering of Pelts brought back the blood-soaked and stylish-yet-sleazy Argento I had fallen in love with. With Argento’s history of hits and misses, I proceeded with trepidation when sitting down to finally watch The Card Player.

It's a cat-and-mouse game between the police and a killer who "wants to play a game." The particular game in question is Internet poker with some high stakes. If the killer wins, he will kill a victim he has kidnapped. If the police win, he'll let the victim go free. To make the police see what they are up against, there is a live web video feed of the bound and gagged victims on screen while they play poker against the madman. Police officer Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) and Interpol investigator John Brennan (Liam Cunningham) join forces to try and stop the killer before he beats them at poker and kills another victim again.

If you are looking for a classic Argento movie, full of style, flamboyancy and soaked in blood, The Card Player is not your best bet. In fact, Argento fans were furious and disappointed when this film first came out. They insisted that Argento had "sold out" and was attempting to "go mainstream" with this film. The colorful and inventive Argento-style is gone, as are the gruesome murder set pieces so beloved by fans from other films such as Suspiria and Deep Red. The Card Player is certainly not the best by Argento, but it certainly isn't that bad of a movie.

The story is pretty typical of a crime thriller and the plot has its share of holes, but I've seen a lot worse. I appreciated that the story gets off to a very fast start; within the first ten minutes the killer has contacted Anna at the police station and the game has begun. The audience is thrust right into the action without the benefit of character or story development. The character development that comes later never really goes too deep, opting to explain just enough to justify, for example, why Anna loathes gambling and never really quite explaining why Anna and John fall for each other. The bad news is the second part of the film, when the action becomes repetitive and there are just too many clichéd moments. The climax of the movie, played out on train tracks, is annoying and seems childish. The killer's motive for the crimes is also childish and laughable.

The acting itself is top notch by the two leads, but secondary characters chew up the scenery with their over-the-top reactions when watching the Card Player's victims' deaths. There are some truly laugh-out-loud moments watching the other actors, and these silly scenes take much away from the overall tension of the film. This is a pity, because with better acting the atmosphere could have held the tension.

There are some scenes that are reminiscent of Argento's signature style – the first is when Anna notices that the killer is watching her from the bushes outside her apartment from an eerie reflection on her ashtray. The ensuing home invasion scene, which happens in the dark, is very effective and suspenseful. Another scene full of style is when Remo (Silvio Muccino), the wiz kid poker player the police hire to beat the killer, chases a pretty girl down the labyrinth streets of Rome only to end up in another game with the killer, this one in which he must risk his own life! The dark labyrinth of streets and the dark labyrinth of the underground sewer Remo is forced to enter creates a claustrophobic and dizzying sequence.

Besides these few and far between scenes that allude to Argento's earlier days, The Card Player is pretty unmemorable and feels like watered-down Argento. There is hardly any gore and the most squirm-inducing scene is one in which John pokes and prods at the orifices (including her slit neck) of a corpse in the autopsy room, looking for clues.

The Card Player is a bland, modern Argento film that I find a hard time recommending. If you are looking for one of Argento’s classic films, do not start with The Card Player. On the other hand, if you've exhausted your collection of Argento films and want to see what his newer efforts look like then The Card Player might be for you. Just don’t bet on getting a gore-filled, stylish Argento film with The Card Player…the odds for that are slim to none!

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