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May 2010

The Card Player

cast: Stefania Rocca, Liam Cunningham, and Silvio Muccino

director: Dario Argento

114 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
review by Gary McMahon

The Card Player

Let's be honest here, shall we? Despite Dario Argento's reputation, he hasn't made a good film in a very long time. His last effort, Mother Of Tears, was particularly awful, and possibly ranks among the worst films I've ever seen. The last Argento film I can remember that genuinely thrilled me in any way was Terror At The Opera, and that's going back quite some years. Even his much-vaunted-at-the-time first foray into the US market, Trauma, was a mess. A fun mess, but a mess just the same. So, whatever Argento might once have had, in the eyes of this viewer he lost it a long time ago...

This brings us, of course, to a recent offering, The Card Player (aka: Il cartaio), which surprisingly isn't too bad a film. It isn't a good film either, but neither is it the utter pile of dreck I was expecting from this faded master of Euro horror. The basic setup is very silly indeed: a serial killer uses a website to play online poker against the police, and if the police lose the game the killer despatches his latest victim - a pretty young woman kept trussed up in a room somewhere, which is also visible on the computer screen as the game is played. Like I said: silly... But still, I won't give away any more of the somewhat derivative plot, because it's so daft that it provides a lot of entertainment value.

Taken on its own terms, and viewed as a slightly gory caper rather than any serious attempt to add something new to the dated serial killer subgenre, it's rather a fun piece of work. Argento seems to have ditched his trademark fancy camera moves and lighting effects for this one, and it's filmed in a pretty straightforward manner. This actually adds to the film's enjoyment, as it strips away the director's usual pretentious cinematic tics and instead the film is presented in a rather flat TV-movie style. Indeed, I have my suspicions that this was originally an Italian TV movie.

The acting quality ranges from not bad to actually rather good - Stefania Rocca is strong in the lead role, and British TV stalwart Liam Cunningham puts in a very good shift as a grizzled English cop caught up in the machinations of the killer. There's one really good shock that I certainly never saw coming, but the whole thing is letdown by a climax with two people tied to a railway track and desperately trying to play poker on a laptop before they are run down by an oncoming train. All that was missing was a cape-and-top-hatted maniac twirling his moustaches and laughing at his victim's peril.

Ludicrous ending aside, this is a decent way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon. Oddly old-fashioned, slightly bloody, and with an intriguing, if absurd, plot, you could do a lot worse than give it a go. I wouldn't say that Argento is even approaching his old form here, but The Card Player is an entertaining enough diversion which is refreshingly unpretentious and self-aware enough to realise that it's not breaking any new ground in terms of storyline or cinematic technique.



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