CROUPIER (1998)

dir. Mike Hodges. Jack Manfred (Clive Owen) is a bad boyfriend, and failed novelist who takes a job at a small casino to pay the rent. I remember this movie being much cooler than it seems today. We follow the story with Jack’s constant interior monologue as he compares his life with the novel he’s writing, mixing up his protagonist with himself, possibly disassociating to justify his poor decisions. I don’t think Clive Owen’s dead-eyed monotone delivery suited this role, he’s supposed to be charming, but is a bore, and he’s supposed to be a gifted writer, but spews cliches. His saving grace is that he is a competent croupier, although I suspect that the close up card handling was movie magic, and not Clive Owen’s hands at all. There is one spectacularly bad sex scene that reads as a violent sexual assault, except that it cuts to a moment of intimacy afterwards. Like in Mike Leigh’s NAKED (1993), apparently this was a universe where violent sexual assault serves as an aphrodisiac. Incidentally, NAKED was another film that wasted the talents of the wonderful Gina McKee. This is the movie that made Clive Owen famous, and for fans, made him a potential future James Bond. Although on this viewing, he seems much more suited to being a Bond villain, than 007, at least in the modern Bond era.

RONIN (1998)

dir. John Frankenheimer. Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) is a mysterious Irish agent who brings together a group of hired guns, including Sam (Robert De Niro) and Vincent (Jean Reno) to steal a special suitcase for unknown reasons. Justifiably famous for the intense car chases, and they are still very intense. These virtuosic car chases are mostly shown without music, with the camera switching perspectives between the POV of the car, and from the pedestrian viewpoint, giving an incredible sense of speed and danger. The plot I found very muddled this time watching. The film tries to make Sam a cold blooded professional like Alain Delon in LE SAMOURAƏ (1967), as the Japanese reference in the title suggests, but it really just creates a less interesting version of De Niro’s character three years earlier in HEAT. The Irish political plot is annoyingly incomplete, and the Irish accents are truly bad. It’s still fun to watch Robert De Niro walk around Paris in a turtleneck drinking wine, and speaking French.

ROUNDERS (1998)

dir. John Dahl. Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) is a law student and reformed poker player. When old school pal, Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of jail owing money to a loan shark, Mike gets back into high stakes poker to try settle things. Some great scenes, but ultimately unsatisfying in the way the messy plot unfolds. Some standout performances, with Martin Landau (Bela Lugosi in ED WOOD (1994)) as Mike’s understanding law professor, and John Malkovich as the gambling boss with the terrible, but amusing Russian accent. The fabulous Famke Janssen (Xenia Onatopp in GOLDENEYE (1995)) has a small role that feels like it should be more important, but it evaporates like so many character arcs. Early on it feels like the core of the film is about the friendship between Mike and Worm, but it’s never paid off satisfactorily – no character seem to go through any change, and the major moments are not suspenseful or exhilarating. Maybe you have to be a real poker fan to fully get this film.