Saturday 19 June 2021

Movie Review: Croupier (1998)

A casino drama, Croupier is a compact story emphasizing ambience and observation to create a smoky mood of bubbling corruption and conflicted morality.

In London, Jack (Clive Owen) is an aspiring but penniless writer originally from South Africa. His father Jack Sr. (Nicholas Ball), a small-time hustler, arranges a job for him as a croupier at a casino managed by Reynolds (Alexander Morton). Jack is good at running the roulette and blackjack tables and uses the customers and other croupiers as inspiration to start writing again. He spots various contraventions of casino policies, including croupier Matt (Paul Reynolds) gambling and liaising with shady types. 

Jack's relationship with girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee), a store detective, suffers when he has a fling with croupier Bella (Kate Hardie). Then his job becomes much more complicated when regular customer Jani (Alex Kingston), also from South Africa and now seemingly owing a lot of money to the wrong people, offers him a lot of cash to enable a theft at the casino.

The actual plot of Croupier does not matter very much. In fact, the casino heist, muddily explained and botched in execution, only appears to be the most relevant narrative trajectory. Within the crisp 94 minutes director Mike Hodges and writer Paul Mayersberg are more interested in a character study and a dive into psychology at the shallow end of the smart pool. Jack therefore narrates with a fascination for the human condition, interrupting his words with his true thoughts as an atmosphere of deadened nothingness wafts over the lives and loves of unmotivated souls going through the same motions but hoping for different outcomes.

The casino manager Reynolds admits his joint is neither high-end glitz nor backroom scuzziness, just middle-of-the-road blandness. And so Jack gets to observe middle-of-the-road people come and go, metronomically losing money, a bit of graft here and there, but without high-roller pizzazz nor bedraggled desperation. Enough is going on to light the bulb of writing inspiration, and Jack creates super-cool alter ego Jake to embody his thoughts and emerge as the hero of his novel.

But Jack is not enduring a mediocre life and working in a mediocre facility by accident, and neither Jack nor Jake are as smart as they think they are. Others will have their say before the curtain rises on unlikely puppet masters, and unexpected rewards are found behind anonymous covers.

Clive Owen cruises through Croupier somewhere between comatose, bemused, and resigned, with enough behind his tired eyes and wry mouth to suggest hidden abilities happily squandered. Where money is willingly lost on games stacked in favour of the house, the only winners are those able to walk away from both sides of the table.

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