Card Player, The (2004)

Starring Laim Cunningham, Stefania Rocca, Claudio Santamaria, Fiore Argento

Directed by Dario Argento

I wonder what it’s like in Italy. In America, when John Carpenter (or hell, Woody Allen) releases a movie, everyone clambers up to the box office in hopes that maybe – just maybe – it’ll be another masterpiece. Critics couch their comments with phrases like, “Well, it’s not quite The Fog/Stardust Memories, but it’s His Best Work In Years.” Sadly, that’s hardly ever true anymore.

Is it like that in Italy when a new Dario Argento movie comes out?

Before it was shot, soon after Argento’s daugher – Asia – backed out of the lead role in Card Player, a friend of mine who knows all-things Argento told me that, sadly, Card Player‘s script was pretty awful and that they didn’t have much hope for the thing. I thought that was too bad as Argento’s non-supernatural cop pics always held a certain appeal for me. But then I went and saw the film and though it’s slightly better than Argento’s recent cop thriller Sleepless, it’s just not a good movie until it starts getting going about two-thirds of the way through the thing. But by then, you don’t care.

You remember that “Simpsons” episode where Stephen King (was it “Simpsons”?) started talking about doing a book about a “killer lamp” implying he had run out of ideas? Okay, so The Card Player is about online poker. One cannot help but imagine Argento sitting in a room somewhere in his Rome offices playing video poker and when somebody poked their head in asking him what his next movie would be about, he shrugged and said, “Online poker.” Yes, that’s a troubling thing to type, but wait until you see the movie.

The plot of the movie is this: Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca – an Italian doppelganger for Bjork) is a loner cop who is targeted – for no given reason – by a serial killer who sends her an e-mail one day with a photo of a recently kidnapped British tourist and the instructions that to save her life, she must play a game of poker with him online. If she wins, the girl lives. If she loses, each “hand” lost will result in “something” being cut off until finally the victim’s throat is cut. Anna alerts her boss, but he refuses to bow to blackmail. When the appointed time arrives and an online poker game launched, a small video window pops up as well so the police can view the victim, bound and gagged and inevitably screaming. After the police commissioner assumes the Card Player is bluffing, the woman is killed on screen and later recovered from a bog somewhere.

Naturally, the British send their own investigator in hard-drinking, hard-worded John Brennan (Dog Soldiers‘ Liam Cunningham who does fine here). Naturally, he and Anna are cut from the same cloth – two tough cops – and just as naturally, end up in bed and falling in love with each other as more victims are kidnapped by the black-gloved Card Player. On the second go-round, the police decide to play poker, but lose and another woman is killed. Determined to beat the Card Player at his own game, John and Anna hunt down a twenty-something kid who is a genius at online poker to play the Card Player in order to buy them more time (the cops have computer experts trying to trace the Card Player, but in true movie fashion, he’s a computer super-genius who has routed his line all over the world). The stakes are raised when the police commissioner’s own daughter – Lucia (Dario’s other daughter, Fiore Argento) – is kidnapped and suddenly, John and Anna have to turn up the heat to stop the psycho.

Okay, I have to say there is absolutely nothing new here. If this “plot” was done in America, it would be a straight-to-tape flick starring Dean Cain and Angie Everhart (and Malcolm McDowell as ‘The Card Player’). One of the things meant to increase the horror in the film is that when the online poker games are being played, the “victim” is sitting there in one corner of the screen screaming their heads off. After each victim does this and the games go on in semi-real time, you get to the point where it’s just comical. The poker game rolls on and there’s just this cacophonous siren next to it wailing and wailing and wailing. On top of that, compared to some of the more recent Argento films – particularly Trauma – there’s not even that shocking of gore scenes. In fact, there was only one death – a delightfully unexpected impaling – that kind of woke me out of the morass that the film had kind of lulled me into. But then the movie just kind of trundled forward to what was genuinely as laughable a conclusion as Clint Eastwood’s Jeff-Daniels-is-a-maniac-with-a-machine-gun in Blood Work.

It’s too bad that this movie went down this way, but as I mentioned as a first impression to someone else, it’s like some new filmmaker “doing” Dario Argento straight out of film school. You look at Cabin Fever and you see a clever, more realistic version of Evil Dead 2 on the screen and you think, “Hey, neat first film! Wonder what Eli Roth’ll do next.” But then imagine if somebody said, “Um…dude? Cabin Fever was directed by Sam Raimi.” You’d be like, “Oh. Ouch.” That’s kind of like Card Player. There’s a scene where you see black gloves coming out in front of the camera “to strangle!!!” and you’re like, “Heh – go get ’em!” but then you remember, this is Argento referencing Argento. The Card Player’s weapon? A box cutter that’s used to slit peoples’ throats on screen (uncomfortable shades of Daniel Pearl and the 9/11 kidnappings flashed through my head). The Card Player’s lair? An old shack somewhere in Rome. In the days post-Seven where serial killer movies are so played out, this is three steps back.

At the end of the day, I didn’t hate The Card Player, I just didn’t care. The only reason I went to see it was because I grew up on Dario Argento movies, consider him to be one of the absolute greats and will always wait and hope that his “next one” will be a return to form the way horror fans still go see John Carpenter movies. But when you have a movie this cookie-cutter – where a killer uses an incredibly silly way to toy with the police and the equally silly police then decide, “Oh, he likes living on the edge – let’s try to track down people who have been involved in games of Russian Roulette or other extreme games!” and it works – it just makes you feel that Argento has run out of gas even further. The Card Player is a mere shadow of what Argento once accomplished with his great audacious horror films and crime thrillers. What separates this film with the kind of Ashley Judd-starring thrillers Paramount is in the business of making is not that much, sadly, which is a depressing thing to say. There’s really not that much to recommend The Card Player.

2 ½ out of 5

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Jon Condit

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