There is often something try-hard about British attempts at hard-boiled crime fiction. Pock-marked faces grimace under sharp haircuts, suits are ironed to within an inch of their life, tough talk slices the air – but it all unfolds like in Bugsy Malone (1976), where little kids played out a twee fantasy of inhabiting an American gangster picture.
Croupier has Mike Hodges of the original Get Carter (1970) fame at the directorial helm, so it shouldn't suffer from a lack of nerve. Alas, this tale of the gambling world pales beside its evident models, such as The Gambler (1974) and Casino (1995).
The setting is not a mighty gambling den in Las Vegas but a modestly seedy English establishment. Jack (Clive Owen) temporarily puts aside his attempts at novel writing and reconnects with the shady past bequeathed to him by his father in South Africa. As Jack cons the customers as a flash croupier and manipulates those close to his heart, he comes to resemble Jake, the ruthless hero of his new novel.
The story's conceits belong more to writer Paul Mayersberg than to Hodges (in a rare gesture, the credit 'a film by' is followed by both men's names). Mayersberg has had a fascinating career, beginning in criticism for the legendary Movie magazine in the early '60s and working his way through scripts for Nicolas Roeg and Nagisa Oshima, as well as directing the oddity Captive (1985).
Mayersberg may love the gritty detail of the hard-boiled tradition – the close-up attention to a job or lifestyle – but he is also terribly fond of dramatic metaphors and elegant narrative patterns. So Jack's game becomes his life; his life becomes a novel; and this novel is etched heavily with intimations of tragic fate.
Meanwhile, Jack alternates indifferently between three women: his pained partner, ex-cop Marion (Gina McKee); a casual lover, ex-prostitute Bella (Kate Hardie); and an enigmatic gambler, ex-South African Jani (Alex Kingston). With all those ex factors at work, this is clearly a story weighed down by the unfinished business of the past.
Croupier can be distantly admired, its ingenuities ticked off one by one, but it never becomes an involving or exciting experience. Hodges and Mayersberg try to have it every which way: they turn Jack's moral journey into a nearly plotless abstraction, yet at the same time they scatter enigmas and clues for the sake of a final whodunit pay-off.
The overall effect is unconvincing and disjunctive, as if Peter Greenaway had stooped to adapt Agatha Christie.
© Adrian Martin April 2001