In the course of a year a smattering of films appear on DVD that seem to suffer in anonymity despite sporting a wide cast of well-known, (if not A-List) actors, as well as decent production values. These titles sprout on rental shelves often as a complete mystery, having been seen only in select cities. The reason behind the limited interest is often an arcane subject matter, curious directing techniques, experimental story telling, or any combination of the above; audience avoidance is often excused and understandable; film festivals may allow for these attempts but for the mass market it is more of a challenge.
“Shade” is the rare exception as it has many quality elements–a strong cast, a good story, and a $10 million budget (high by direct-to-rental standards). It is also a solid effort from a first time writer and director, Damian Nieman, and while not a perfect film it certainly could have been enjoyed a healthy run in theaters, suffering for no other reason than the whims of the industry. Lacking distribution means that Blockbuster Video’s subsidiary DEJ Productions gets to release a good title for renters.
Set in the underground poker dens of Los Angeles “Shade” offers up familiar themes of backroom card hustlers and low-level grifters, but the delivery is assured and presented with a knowledgeable hand. Neiman himself is well versed in the art of card manipulation; he not only executes the series of maneuvers shown during the opening credits but he also schooled the actors so they could perform their own moves for the camera. Even the tried plotline of a legend being challenged by a gifted novice works without losing the audience.
We first meet Charlie and Tiffany (Gabriel Byrne and Thandie Newton) as they work a small con to net $300, but they have their minds set on cracking a bigger score. They want to bring down the biggest name in the L.A. poker universe, a man named Stevens, who is also known as “The Dean”. Sylvester Stallone plays the silver-haired maestro, and he actually surprises with a low-key and weighty performance. Melanie Griffith is around as set dressing and Stevens’ arm candy. In order for the pair to get at The Master they need to team up with a “mechanic”, a card sharp with tremendous manipulative skills. They know just the guy—Vernon, a young and talented player who is ready to take his shot at The Dean. Stuart Townsend plays Vernon with a credible job as a confident scammer, even executing many of the card moves himself in uncut scenes at the tables. The fact that Vernon and Tiffany have a romantic past is one of many entanglements that will be unraveled throughout the proceedings.
Since it takes a huge bankroll to sit at a table with Stevens the crew needs to first build up their stores by recruiting another player to sit with Vernon while working soft tables in the city. Jaime Fox is brought in as a brash player who will bet heavy on the hands dealt by Vernon, but their plans go off the reservation—or seem to—in the course of their cross. Eventually Vernon gets his sit-down with The Dean, with some expected but competent results, and a fair amount of plot twists along the way to satisfy.
While “Shade” provides a balance between “The Sting” and “Rounders” it falls short of both efforts, but considering the quality of those films this is not meant as a harsh rebuke. This is a movie that delivers more than should be expected considering its truncated destiny, with director Neiman giving legitimacy to an area he is more than comfortable detailing on screen.