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The Card Player (2004)
Director: Dario Argento

review by Paul Higson

Age showed no signs of a slowdown for Argento in his last few offerings. He still displayed that propensity to surprise and shock us in the tortured and curiously personal The Stendahl Syndrome and particularly so in the wildly entertaining Sleepless, so consistently entertaining and amusing that going to my bed immediately after viewing I felt unusually compelled to watch it over once more the very moment I woke again. The Card Player is terribly disappointing, a weak exercise for a director capable of far more. Argento, as co-scriptwriter with Franco Ferrini, is too self-congratulatory in that he gets to show off with a wan knowledge of firewalls and "multi-proxy encryption" to foil the detectives this time around for a plot that involves a nasty interactive Internet game, whereas he is better with plainer party tricks mucking his characters around. We the viewers have seen dodgy Internet serial crime too often before, the good and the largely bad and we are hardly going to be impressed by Argento's bluffer take on it.

Lady Detective Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) is contacted by a serial killer inviting the police into a game of electronic poker, the odds on which are the life of an abducted British tourist, on whom a web-cam is trained to transmit live images back to the investigative team. When the Police Chief Marini (Antonio Cantafora) refuses to play the sick game the victim has her throat slit and the body is dumped into a lake. Disgraced Irish Detective John Brennan (Liam Cunningham) is installed into the case, to help bring in what is now the killer of a British subject. A prostitute is the next grabbed and this time the team agree to the killer's terms and play the game. One of the younger detectives has knowledge of poker but fails to win a hand and another body on its way to the waterways. The killer absconds with a third just as the detectives stumble on Remo (Silvio Muccino) a luck-drenched teenage gambler, who reluctantly takes on the challenge, though unfortunately the captive is fatally lost when she herself interrupts the game with an on-line bid for freedom. It is enough to put anyone off, but the next victim is the Chief's daughter Lucia (Fiore Argento) and the pressure is on. The story trundles along, prominent characters meet premature ends but none of it is startling or surprising, not in terms of story, though the skills of Argento and his inducements to shock are still in evidence, from the glistening close-up inspections of carcasses (provided by old special make-up effects hand Sergio Stivaletti) to the suddenness of some of the deaths. The killer gives two fingers to the police... and at one stage, literally presents them with a couple of snipped off digits also. The crowd that gathers around the screen in the police station turn it unsettlingly into a snuff spectator sport.

Realism is not the issue with Argento. The problem with The Card Player is that everything is anticipatory. There is just enough time and little enough interesting and convincing character and dialogue for the viewer to come to conclusions before they occur. The Stendahl Syndrome also seemed to be short of the technical magic but made up for it with a good premise, episodes of surrealistic pizzazz and unusual, cruelly plotted blows, like the rape and rape again of the director's daughter, Asia. The Card Player goes for it, but fails to have us give a damn. Stefania Rocca is fantastic in the lead role but the rest of the cast are perfunctory, faintly pencilled in characters, awarded more heart and passion by the players than the roles or film deserve. Argento does concentrate a little more on the emotional responses, on the terrified expressions of the victims or the pendulous guilt of the first detective when he fails to win the game and save the girl's life, but these are sensations reserved only for the extremes and are not a constant in the film.

It is all too lank an exercise, with no camerawork wowing us and Claudio Simonetti reduced to providing a loud but lazy disco hard beat, unbelievably embarrassing. Again, you think back a film, and Sleepless had the classic Argento soundtrack. One imagines there might have been a better soundtrack written but realising how terrible the new film was it was decided to instead save it for a more worthwhile effort. There is action but no real belief from any quarter in The Card Player, it is almost touchingly apt that the director's most unimaginative film in a long time should close with a railway line damsel in peril scenario, even if this one is a duel with both victim and killer handcuffed to the tracks and a laptop before them, the poker hands played out on screen deciding who gets the key and gets to live. You might not identify the killer in this whodunit but neither will you care to. I walked away poker faced... and I wasn't hiding anything. Still, you never write Argento off completely and can always hope for more from him next time.
Card Player

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