What would the 35-year-old Dario Argento, basking in the international acclaim of his 1975 Giallo masterpiece Deep Red, have made of The Card Player? He probably would have enjoyed it, but he almost certainly wouldn't have recognised it as his own work. The Italian maestro's latest is, on the face of it, less flawed than any of his recent films. The plotting is tight, the tone straight-faced, the direction skillful. It's never dull, and moves along at a decent pace. But it's also devoid of any of those twisted idiosyncrasies that define Argento's best work and provide even his weaker pictures with flashes of brilliance.
Stefania Rocca plays Anna Mari, a Rome-based cop on the trail of – yes! – a serial killer who preys on women. This one calls himself the Card Player, and with a web-cam trained on the terrified, gagged face of each potential victim, he challenges the police to a game of online poker. If they win, she'll be set free, if not she dies there and then. With the help of discredited, boozy Irish cop John Brennan (Liam Cunningham), Anna plunges into the murky world of underground gambling to find him.
Argento has long been obsessed with technology – in front of and behind the camera – and here he uses the internet as a central plot device. The online games that the cops – aided by a teenage poker whiz they hire – are forced to play provide much of the film's tension, and there are some fraught moments as a trio of police computer geeks try to pin-point the killer's location. Which is all very well, but computers just aren't very cinematic, and no matter how high the stakes are, a bloke clicking a mouse in a brightly lit police station isn't the sort of thing that gets the blood pumping.
The Card Player feels more like a slick, commercial TV cop show than the dark, stylish horror thriller it wants to be. This must be Argento's least bloody film; most of the killings are off-screen or extremely brief, and only the moment when one major character is left to swing in the wind, impaled on a spring-loaded spike trap recalls the ghoulish slayings of old. Likewise, the camerawork is entirely professional but completely anonymous – no disorientating crane shots or POVs here – and even Claudio Simonetti's score is a generic techno-throb, a world way from his baroque Goblin hey-day. One big plus point is the cinematography of Benoît Debie, who shot Irreversible and lends this film a cold, realistic look very different from the gaudy palate the director usually favours.
On its own terms, the film is pretty enjoyable for an hour or so. Rocca and Cunningham are a likable pair of mismatched cops – even if she struggles with her English and he overdoes the drunken Irish bluster – and all the requisite police thriller ingredients are methodologically delivered. There are washed-up bodies on a river bank, shady gambling clubs, a suspenseful sequence where Anna is menaced in her own house, Brennan becoming obsessed with a single clue that eventually leads him to the killer, and a scene where Anna confesses her troubled past before leaping into bed with him. But it all runs out of steam by the end. The murderer is given a silly, throwaway motive, and there's a risible, so-bad-it's-funny climactic scene, in which Anna and the Card Player engage in one last game of poker, this time on his laptop while lying next to each other, tied to a train track. Give me an old-fashioned shoot-out any day of the week. The Card Player is no worse than any of those generic serial killer thrillers that Hollywood churns out every year – Twisted, Taking Lives, The Bone Collector – but it’s dispiriting stuff from this one-time master of the genre.
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.