Mike Hodges, best known for the lean and mean Get Carter (1971), returns to form with Croupier. This polished throwback to the wit and economy of British thrillers from the late '60s and early '70s certainly has style to spare, but like its smooth operator protagonist, it lacks a soul.
Down on his luck novelist Jack Manfred (Clive Owen, handsome and angular as a young Sean Connery) is forced to make ends meet by taking a job at a high stakes casino. He's a croupier, or dealer, operating with cold precision. He sizes up gamblers who line up as the roulette wheel to try their luck.
Croupier is fascinated with the seductive allure of poker chips on a table, the dealer's nimble fingers making the cards dance in mystical shuffles. Jack is unflappable as a dry martini when asking patrons to place their bets, brisk and efficient at calling the hands. He's attractive in the way of people who do what they like and do it very well. Everyone's gotta have a hobby.
Of course, Jack has slightly higher aspirations than being a card shark his entire life. No, no -- he wants to write the great British novel. He uses his life as a croupier as fodder for material, but this gets him in hot water when a beautiful South African gambler (Alex Kingston) lures him into a plot to rob the casino. It would make for a crackling yarn, but will his rock solid principles allow him to take the plunge?
There's no time for audiences to figure out how ridiculous and contrived Croupier is, moving at a tight clip. Hodges throws in plenty of sexual tension, surrounding Jack with beautiful women whose good looks hide shrewd intentions. The fetching Kingston is joined by Gina McKee (Wonderland) as Jack's long-suffering security guard girlfriend who catches wise to his schemes, and Kate Hardie (Mona Lisa) as a fellow croupier who proves, once and for all, that bespectacled women can be sexy and dangerous.
If only Hodges had trusted his cinematography, elegant as a smoking jacket, and the laser precise editing without relying on that old-school noir device of heavy-handed voice-overs. Jack Manfred narrates his tale with smug detachment. This grates on the nerves, providing information we already know because we're seeing it unfold on the table.
Clive Owen looks terrific with his jet black hair and crisp tuxedos, born to play this role, but he's such an impenetrable iceberg that we never really root for him. While his charismatic screen presence is ever watchable, he lacks the depth of Michael Caine in Get Carter. We could have used more of the comic antics from Nicholas Ball as Jack's wily old dad, forever sneaking up on him with duplicitous telephone calls.
Flawed as Croupier is, it atones by painting a seemingly accurate picture of London high rollers. The club feels lived-in, populated with actors who have memorably sneaky faces. Mike Hodges has always been particularly attuned to the atmosphere of a room and the characters that inhabit the space. Far more successful at the gambler's rush than Matt Damon's schoolboy lessons in Rounders, Croupier is worth taking a chance on.