It took me a while to check out this British film, but then it took nearly two years and The Shooting Gallery for this masterpiece to be released in America. Once I realized the director of this film was veteran Mike Hodges, I ran to the next show I could find.
Hodges is one of those journeyman directors who has flown under the radar of this country while exhibiting much genius. Much of his work has been for British television. His feature debut was in 1971 with the classic Michæl Caine film, “Get Carter”. That movie is more hard-boiled than “Taxi Driver” and was a big inspiration for last year’s “The Limey”. The rest of his output since then has been all over the place and includes such sci-fi-esque gems as “The Terminal Man” and “Flash Gordon” (yes, the one with the Queen soundtrack). Now he’s closer to where he began with a little flick called “Croupier”.
Written by another veteran, Paul Mayersberg (“The Man Who Fell to Earth”), “Croupier” tells the story of Jack Manfred (Clive Owen). Originally from South Africa, Jack now lives in London with girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee) and wants to be a writer. Cool and dispassionate, Jack reveals little of himself while taking in and coldly dissecting all around him. Still, nothing really sparks his writing until his father (Nicholas Ball) back in Africa arranges for him a job behind the roulette wheel in a London casino. Having previously worked a casino in his home country, Jack believes that a return to the world of gambling is just what he needs for the basis of his first novel. Afterwards, he can just walk away. After all, Jack never gambles himself, or so he thinks.
This is a stunning movie. I can’t reveal any more of the story than that. Believe me, once Jack enters the casino for the first time, you can’t turn away. The plot isn’t so much what this film is about, anyway. What Hodges and Mayersberg are really after is the nature of gambling: the adrenaline high and the self-deception. Jack never gambles with money, but as the movie progresses he becomes more and more reckless. The odds are never in your favor, but we learn the outcome may never be as important as how you feel when you take that chance. Jack has little interest in any bet where he can compute the odds. As he risks more in his personal life, however, he feels more alive than he ever seemed before. Soon, he’s as addicted to these risks and to being a croupier as any of the patrons who sit across from him at the roulette wheel.
The series of films released by the Shooting Gallery has been mixed (“Judy Berlin” good, “Orphans” uneven), they should be commended for stepping up to the plate and releasing this, one of the best films of this year or the one in which it was made. I just hope everyone gets a chance to see it.