Clive Owen mesmerizes the audience with his enigmatic performance as Jack Manfred in Mike Hodges’s film ”Croupier.” Behind his stoic facade, Owen exudes a sharp, cynical intellect that captivates viewers with his piercing blue eyes. Portraying a skilled card dealer in an upscale London casino, Jack takes wicked pleasure in observing the wealthy punters as they recklessly squander their fortunes. However, the constant need to maintain an impenetrable mask takes its toll on Jack, leaving him a shattered wreck by the end of each grueling evening.
While Owen bears passing resemblances to Dylan McDermott, Nicolas Cage, and Bruce Willis, his portrayal brings to mind a young Michael Caine, who delivered a similar blend of icy detachment and affable charm three decades earlier. Notably, Caine starred in the 1971 British cult classic thriller ”Get Carter,” directed by Hodges. This film served as a precursor to subsequent gangster movies like ”The Long Good Friday” and ”Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” With ”Croupier,” Hodges, working from Paul Mayersberg’s screenplay, proves that he has not lost his ability to create a clever, tongue-in-cheek suspense.
”Croupier” transcends being a mere thrilling narrative set in a casino. Narrated by Jack himself, sometimes through his fictional alter ego Jake, the film becomes a contemplative exploration of life as a game of chance. One of the film’s delightful ironies is that Jack, despite his pretentious attitude towards gambling, is not as detached from its allure as he would like to believe. Although he adamantly avoids gambling himself, he becomes deeply influenced by the games he oversees. By the movie’s conclusion, he finds himself calculating the numerical odds of events unfolding in his own life.
Jack, an aspiring novelist, was born in South Africa but resides in London with his fiancée, Marion Neil (played by Gina McKee), a detective in a department store. Marion initially romanticizes the idea of living with a writer, but she becomes disenchanted when Jack’s new job not only takes him away from literature but also from her. As he departs for work around the same time she returns home, their relationship faces strain.
The film suggests that writing fiction is akin to gambling, where success relies on selecting the right subject matter and, above all, a captivating book title. Giles Cremorne (portrayed by Nick Reding), the publisher with whom Jack develops a professional rapport, embodies every serious writer’s nightmare—an editor who prioritizes playboy antics and marketing prowess over genuine literary appreciation. Jack’s childhood in South Africa, where his father, a casino operator, taught him card dealing, instilled in him a disdain for gambling and the foolishness it ensnares. However, in order to support his writing aspirations, Jack reluctantly embraces the opportunity his father arranges for him to work as a croupier. As he proudly proclaims, his dexterous hands resemble those of a magician or a skilled card shark.
During his job interview, Jack learns about the casino’s rules that prohibit fraternization with coworkers and socializing with punters. Inspired by Matt (played by Paul Reynolds), a misanthropic colleague and habitual rule-breaker, Jack’s virtue begins to erode rapidly. He succumbs to the allure of Bella (portrayed by Kate Hardie), a waitress at the casino, and allows himself to be entangled in a scheme devised by Jani de Villiers (Alex Kingston), a glamorous and amoral punter whom he accompanies on a debauched weekend at Giles’s country estate. With each ethical lapse, Jack fabricates slippery justifications. The film meanders towards an unexpected climax, defying conventional expectations and offering a fresh twist.
”Croupier,” currently showing at the Loews State Theater, may not possess the tightest narrative structure or aspire to strict realism, but it compensates with its compelling performances and detailed depiction of casino life. Ultimately, it presents a lighter and less stylized British response to David Mamet’s ”House of Games,” as both films play tricks on their central characters and audiences alike. In ”Croupier,” the tone leans more towards whimsy than vindictiveness.